Details: (c) Steppenmole Enterprises Ltd 1987; Pub 1988 Penguin Books; ISBN 0-14-007206-3
Verdict: Skallagrigg is powerfully written and moving.
Reasons for reading it: I had lent it to lethargic_man and his returning it to me seemed a good occasion to reread it. Especially so since, very unusually for me, I'd managed to travel with insufficient books to keep me going for a long journey. As I'd hoped, I spent most of the overnight coach journey asleep, but there are some bits you just can't sleep through, such as waiting at bus stops for connections. So I started rereading Skallagrigg rather than have to sit around for a whole ten minutes with nothing to read (the horror!).
How it came into my hands: I found it in a charity shop ten years ago or so, when I was on holiday with my parents in some south coast port town; I can't remember exactly which now, maybe Plymouth? And I bought it mainly because HFL had raved about The Stonor Eagles by the same author. (I think I had read at least some of the Duncton Wood series in one of my 'read through the entire children's section of the library systematically' phases, but they are really nothing special and wouldn't have convinced me to rush out and buy Horwood's adult books.)
Then when I left home, it was one of a handful of books that I appropriated even though they technically belong to the family rather than me personally. I don't feel too terrible about this, because I'm much more into it than the rest of the family, and if anyone wants it they know where it is; I can't see myself removing the book out of anyone else's reach.
Skallagrigg is very much packaged as trash, with gold lettering on the cover and a flash saying The compelling search to unearth a secret that could never be told, and a blurb about an inspired, heart-rending story of rescue and redemptive love. These descriptions are not exactly inaccurate, but they are misleading in terms of register. I'm not by any means a snob; I'm aware that trashy genre books can sometimes be well written, but Skallagrigg is not merely 'good trash', rather it's extremely original and intelligent and complex and doesn't meet most of the expectations of a romantic bestseller.
I think the main reason I like Skallagrigg so much is the really wonderful characterization. There's a big cast of characters, and every single one of them comes across as a distinct person. The really believable characters create a strong sense of emotional attachment; there is quite a bit of emotional manipulation going on, but it feels almost superfluous because the reader is so involved in people's lives that it's impossible not to empathize. Obviously, given the subject matter of the book, quite a few of the characters are disabled, but they are very much people who are disabled, rather than stock disabled 'types'. All the characters are multi-dimensional human beings; some are more likeable, some less, and the likeable ones are flawed while the nasty ones are somewhat sympathetic. Also, for a book that is rather hammering the point that severely disabled people who may have physical difficulties in communicating can still be intelligent, it avoids the obvious trap of diminishing the humanity and worth of those disabled people who happen not to be intelligent or who have learning disabilities as well as physical.
Particularly given the level of empathy Horwood manages to create for his characters, a lot of Skallagrigg is pretty harrowing. It succeeds in not being so unrelentingly depressing as to put the reader off altogether, though. I've read it so many times that I know perfectly well that it's dangerous to get emotionally involved, but I always do in spite of myself.
I also hadn't reread Skallagrigg... recently until now. It's not by any means a comfortable book at any time, and I have to admit I was rather nervous about rereading it this time. I decided in the end that there was no point in not reading it; the reality it's based on is still going to be there, and the impressions I already have of it are still going to be there, and the circumstances that are causing me to find it particularly hard to deal with are still going to be there, regardless of whether I read it or not. Plus, the whole not having anything else to read at the time definitely helped to convince me.
Actually the main thing that struck me on this reading was that I'm now older than Richard Marquand at the beginning of the story, when he loses his new wife and is left with a baby so severely disabled that it takes ten years to determine that she's intelligent. I'm older than Esther ever lives to, too. I think when I've read Skallagrigg in the past, I've identified mainly with Esther who is a teenager for the bulk of the narrative, whereas this time I identified much more with Richard. It's very clear from the introduction that he's an authorial insert, incidentally, but it's still interesting to read at least the earlier part of the book treating him as protagonist. Along similar lines, I was very much moved by the account of the breakdown of Esther's relationship with Daniel, whereas as a younger reader I was pretty much indifferent to the 'lovey-dovey stuff'.
The other thing I noticed that I hadn't before was just how much Esther goes in for the noble self-sacrifice thing. I've always been somewhat uncomfortable with some of the romantic Christianity that runs through Skallagrigg but I'd not previously noticed that Esther is deliberately being set up as the suffering Christ. I'd seen the breakdown of her relationship with her father, and her illness and death, as unfortunate things that happened to her, but on this reading they seemed much more like something she chooses in order to relieve her loved ones of the burden of caring for her. This is an attitude I find exceedingly disturbing.
There are definitely elements of Skallagrigg that are romantic, even sentimental. It has a romantic view of friendship which is a form of sentimentalism I can tolerate quite well, especially in a context that is clear-eyed about traditionally 'romantic' relationships. I can't make up my mind whether I object to elements of the 'happy ending' or not. The thing is, it's not a 'they all lived happily ever after' sort of ending, it's much more 'they had a lot of struggles in their lives, but some of them found a degree of peace and resolution in the end'. That should be ok; I think it's the rather high-flown language of some of the closing scenes that annoys me.
The major weakness of Skallagrigg is in its attempt to be SF. It's set in the near future, and one plot arc revolves around the development of a groundbreaking computer game. The game itself is outdated even by the standards of when the book was written, let alone the projected 10 years in the future. But even ignoring the timescale, the description of the computer game just doesn't convince. On the other hand, quite a lot of the book fits in rather well with the Quest form, which isn't expected in mainstream modern books, but would tend to classify the book as fantasy.
I recommend Skallagrigg highly. It's not a perfect book, but it has a lot of elements which are very strong, and it's extremely original, I would say unlike any other book I've read, in either subject matter or structure.