(Puffin, £4.99, 214 pages, paperback; January 2003.)
Nick Gifford knows his Bible, knows his Nazi war crimes spring fastest to mind
as being, in this novel, most powerfully metaphored). Nick Gifford knows
all about teen alienation, fear, bullying and loneliness. He knows his
quest fiction; his supernatural fiction; even (surprisingly) his romantic
fiction. Were he ever to consider the following point, he might even
know that a reviewer would begin a review, as this reviewer was planning
to, all the way up to page 98, with a sentence along these lines:
and knows his war crimes (
Neither mad nor suffering from a discombobulating hangover, young
Ben Aynsley finds himself, in the very first line of Piggies,
hauled into a brand new and frightening world that is not of his own
We begin, therefore, in the familiar fantasy territory of seeing
the lead character enter an unfamiliar fantasy territory. (Nick
Gifford knows his sub-genre, too: the doorway through to this new land
is sparsely but neatly evocative.) Here our hero is very soon at danger.
It is not that the world he knows has changed -- although in some cases
only subtly, with mild variations on street names, for example -- it
is more the case that Ben is at threat from a genre-specific form of
predator: the vampire. For Ben, everything has been turtled on to its
back, and Ben cannot realign himself; he spends a good part of the first
half of the novel in trying to understand why the vampires seem in the
majority and why he, and he alone it would at first seem, has the taste
and scent of meat about his bones.
All of this is handled extremely well. The writing is as vigorous as
sunburn and muscle sprains. Although Piggies is a children's
book, it will be enjoyed by any adult with an open mind; furthermore,
an adult can bring to the pages a wealth of stock footage and experience
that Gifford gleefully tampers with. We dig through the pages like insects
through sand, getting rubbed down by the spiky, short paragraphs, and
heading for ever-colder grains. Meanwhile, further in Ben travels. Perpetually
scared by the thought of having his blood sampled, he searches out a
group of 'ferals': a group of people who think the same way that he
does. When he finds them, he is not embraced; he is regarded as a threat
to the community -- not least by the wise man of the vagabond tribe,
who drops our bombshell on page 98.
It would be vicious of a reviewer to say exactly what happens here
(as indeed it would be to explain the title, although we can go as far
as to say that it's not what you're expecting), but Ben's (new) world
is turned upside-down; and for the first time the reader has serious
doubts about Ben's genuine frame of mind. This is a masterstroke. From
this point onwards, we are on tenterhooks, and hoping for the purity
of mind to return, however ugly that purity may appear.
The horrors increase; they pile upon Ben, even in the midst of an odd-couple
love relationship. Ben is forced to examine the scab of trust, and to
pick at it with dread and curiosity. The book gets faster and nastier,
until we arrive at a set of shocks that would not appear tame in an
adult horror novel. One image in particular tends to loiter and
linger, long after the covers are closed; it roots and snuffles among
the reader's imagination, bringing with it a woody scent and a wet chill.
Piggies is powerful children's fiction, and a cleverly fast read.
Review by David Mathew.