Ever Dundas presents us with an iconic protagonist: a powerful imaginative force who looks beyond the facade of 20th Century Britain and sees a fairy tale of lizard kings and dolls with shrews' heads
Ever Dundas, Goblin, Saraband, 2017.
Goblin is an oddball and an outcast. But she's also a dreamer, a bewitching raconteur, a tomboy adventurer whose spirit can never be crushed. Running feral in World War II London, Goblin witnesses the carnage of the Blitz and sees things that can never be unseen...but can be suppressed. She finds comfort in her beloved animal companions and lives on her wits with friends real and imagined, exploring her own fantastical world of Lizard Kings and Martians and joining the circus. In 2011, London is burning once again, and an elderly Goblin reluctantly returns to the city. Amidst the chaos of the riots, she must dig up the events of her childhood in search of a harrowing truth. But where lies truth after a lifetime of finding solace in an extraordinary imagination, where the distinction between illusion and reality has possibly been lost forever?
Ian McEwan’s Atonement meets Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in this extraordinary debut.
A novel set between the past and present with magical realist elements. Goblin is an outcast girl growing up in London during World War 2. After witnessing a shocking event she increasingly takes refuge in a self-constructed but magical imaginary world. Having been rejected by her mother, she leads a feral life amidst the craters of London’s Blitz, and takes comfort in her family of animals, abandoned pets she’s rescued from London’s streets.
In 2011, a chance meeting and an unwanted phone call compels an elderly Goblin to return to London amidst the riots and face the ghosts of her past. Will she discover the truth buried deep in her fractured memory or retreat to the safety of near madness? In Goblin, debut novelist Dundas has constructed an utterly beguiling historical tale with an unforgettable female protagonist at its centre.
'In my opinion the best debut fiction by a Scottish author since 2012... A profoundly affecting, intellectually challenging and beautifully written fable ... a marvellous piece of work.' - Stuart Kelly
'Enthralling... a captivating debut... Dundas presents us with an iconic protagonist: a powerful imaginative force who looks beyond the facade of 20th Century Britain and sees a fairy tale of lizard kings and dolls with shrews' heads.' - Alastair Mabbott
'A captivating and capricious debut that explores with a deft hand the `creature world' we all carry somewhere inside.' - Mary Paulson Ellis
Thankfully, Ever Dundas’ Goblin won the Saltire Scottish first book of the year award last year – critic Stuart Kelly had threatened to walk naked down Princes Street if it didn’t. Kelly called the novel “the best debut fiction by a Scottish author since Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon in 2012.” Both novels feature a child protagonist, though in Goblin the eponymous child is a Second World War evacuee who we also meet in the near-present (2011) in a narrative which alternates with her life story. The link is the discovery of a camera, alongside a strange collection of objects suggestive of childish necromancy – “bones, doll parts, a shrew head”. The camera film, once developed, is found to contain pictures of, among other things, the so called ‘pet massacre’ when thousands of domestic animals were killed in the first days of the war. There is, however, also a secret buried with this time in Goblin’s life, a memory she has repressed.
Goblin, as she frequently tells those she meets on her colourful journey through life, is her real name – “Goblin-runt born blue” to give her the full title provided by her mother, who claims she killed the midwife with her ugliness when she was born. Luckily she has her older brother, David, her friends, Mac and Stevie, and, above all, her dog, Devil. Goblin will spend the novel surrounded by animals: as an evacuee she adopts the appropriately militaristic Corporal Pig; returning to London she creates a refuge for bombed-out pets; and in her time with the circus she is frequently found sleeping with the animals (that is, literally). This is not accidental, and there is perhaps an early hint of the reasons (and Goblin’s impressive imagination) when she is playing a game with her friends:
“Mac, you’re Frankenstein’s monsta… I’ll be the Martians, and Stevie’s the Nazis…. Devil’s the humans.”
Among Goblin’s many ‘modern’ attitudes is her view of animals, often regarding them as more ‘human’ than people. As an evacuee she is unable to bear the cruelty of the boy she has been housed with:
“He’d shot a rabbit, but badly. It was wounded, and he was shoving a stick into its wound. I shot it in the head. Blood spattered on John. Barely thinking, I swung the gun over and shot him in the foot.”
(Later, in Poland with the circus, she intervenes when she sees a crowd kicking a dog). It is not shooting John, however, which causes consternation in the Christian household in which she has been placed but the discovery of Monsta, a creature she has created from the aforementioned bones and doll parts, which they regard as a sign of the Devil (not the dog). This will necessitate her return to London (with Corporal Pig) and the separation from her first love, Angel.
By this point it is clear that Dundas is channelling the often maligned picaresque novel, perhaps particularly when Goblin’s adventures literally lead to her running away to join the circus where she discovers a new family, her father and mother having died during the war, and her brother apparently missing. (As she travels with the circus she puts up posters in an attempt to locate him). She also takes a darker look at areas, such as evacuation, we associate with children’s fiction, using other tropes such as the cruel parent as well. However, what most links Goblin to children’s literature is the lack of irony: her innocence is not used as a lens though which Dundas can view her themes. Her wild imagination (as well as Monsta, there are ghosts and a Lizard King and Queen) exists in a no-man’s land between psychology and magic. (Dundas has said it is “purposely ambiguous” and that “realism doesn’t make sense.”)
Goblin is certainly an exhilarating first novel, though the decision to stretch the timeline between 1939 and 2011 also stretches belief as it becomes impossible for Dundas to do justice to Goblin’s later life in the same way as she does for her early years. While the novel is never dull, this leaves the mystery teased at in the present a very long way from the final reveal, and the small sections of prose Dundas must keep inserting to remind us there is a present less and less meaningful Having said that, the reveal in the final pages is accomplished and satisfying.
Without doubt, Dundas has a singular imagination enhanced by a vivid, and frequently visual, voice. It is perhaps no accident that photographs are at the heart of this novel, as there are likely to be many scenes which stay with the reader, not so much as a result of the descriptive power with which they are written as because of the eye for detail Dundas possesses. Her second novel could take us anywhere. - https://1streading.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/goblin/
Dead things can’t die; weirdos always find each other. These two statements, from Scottish author Ever Dundas’s terrific debut novel, contain between them much of the meaning of the book, and much that makes it moving. It is a celebration of freakery, of creating one’s own family; a meditation on trauma and loss and abandonment (in both senses of that word) which, somehow, is never bleak.Goblin brims throughout with a kind of reckless joy.
The story switches regularly and rapidly between past and almost-present, mostly in London: between the firelit city of the blitz and the firelit city of the 2011 riots. Goblin, when we first encounter her, is an 81-year-old reader-in-residence at Edinburgh’s Central Library, where she is kept company by Ben, a homeless man eating his way through Ulysses, page by page, chowing down as if it were a gorgonzola sandwich. Goblin is the name her mother used for her; a term of hatred that she has reclaimed.
One day, she reads in the newspaper about the discovery in Kensal Green Cemetery of a macabre buried cache – doll parts, bones, a camera. The film, when developed, is of interest to the police. This provokes in Goblin intrusive thoughts of her childhood in London. Things that were buried are coming to the surface. Little moments bring on memories: a dizzy spell, a sip of whisky, the cooing of pigeons; suddenly, we are back in 1941 and she is a semi-feral girl, an androgynous urchin with a head full of HG Wells and Bride of Frankenstein, and a bedroom full of strays.
About those strays. Neglected and emotionally abused by her mother, Goblin shows love and mercy to animals made homeless by Luftwaffe bombs or otherwise threatened by life on the home front. A crucial plot point has to do with the so-called “pet massacre” of 1939 when, in the first four days of the war, an estimated 400,000 animals were put down by Londoners worried that they would not be able to feed or care for them.
One of Dundas’s aims with this book, she has explained, is to challenge the romantic consensus around the second world war and, as Ballard said of Crash, to “rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror”. In her descriptions of the pet massacre, she gives us the vomit – literally – and a horrific, unforgettable image: a Golgotha of cats and dogs, corpses piled in a stinking hill, a foreshadowing of what would be found upon the liberation of the death camps.
As well as animals, Goblin’s other comfort is language. She is a storyteller, potty- and poetry-mouthed, cursing and versing, “weaving tales, spinning words into nets”, as one character puts it, until “no one knew what was true any more”. She creates a personal mythology based around her reading of science fiction and the Bible, anxiety about German invasion and the delusional ramblings of a local eccentric, the Crazy Pigeon Woman of Amen Court. Any experience, no matter how personally traumatic, is understood in the context of this myth: real life is held at a distance, where it cannot hurt as much.
Goblin is a picaresque; in what are arguably the best passages, the heroine sets out to walk from Cornwall to London, a revacuee heading back to the blitz, to rubble and trouble, with her pet hog, Corporal Pig, trotting at her heels. There is so much energy and delight in that chapter, but Dundas can do stillness too. She is an accomplished creator of tableaux. The plot scoots along, breathless, deathwards, so fast it blurs, when all of a sudden – snap! – it seems to freeze on artfully composed scenes: girls in gas masks playing skipping games; a teenage boy lying in his bedroom, Dietrich on the wall, Liszt on the gramophone, smoke in the air; a child floating, drowned, on a bombsite, her dirty blond hair “like a messed up halo”.
What Dundas reveals, again and again, is the mildewed wall behind the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. Her wartime London is rendered with such eldritch vivacity that the story loses considerable energy, though not fatally so, when it moves on and Goblin grows up.
The novel itself is a kind of foundling. It was published originally in May by Freight and there were concerns that it might be lost as a result of that publisher’s financial difficulties. Happily, it has been rescued by Saraband and has another chance at life. Its recent naming as Scottish first book of the year at the Saltire literary awards signals a remarkable and deserved resurrection. Dead things can’t die? Quite so. Dead good things shouldn’t either. - Peter Ross https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/06/goblin-ever-dundas-review