Sheena Wilkinson's award-winning novel is 'devastating and beautifully written'
In Dublin in May 2013, at the Children's Books Ireland Awards, Belfast writer Sheena Wilkinson’s novel Grounded won the Book of the Year Award and the Children’s Choice Award. Wilkinson is only the second author to win both of these prestigious prizes in the same year.
Grounded, the sequel to Wilkinson's award-winning first novel Taking Flight, takes up the story of Declan, a young man who finds a way to steady his head and to escape from a life of potential failure and hopelessness through a love of and talent with horses.
Declan has left school and finished a course in equine studies and is beginning some form of independent life, with his girlfriend, the bouncy, irrepressible Seaneen.Just as gritty, realistic and moving as the first book, Grounded moves on with its protagonist, and so is suitable for a slightly older readership of young adults.
Just as the first book risked cliché in its placing a young man from west Belfast in the horsy set of County Down and successfully transcended it, so too this book continues the story with Wilkinson’s characteristic avoidance of sentimentality or simplification.
The result is a book that is entirely engaging but also hard-hitting in dealing with difficult issues of teenage drug use, drinking, pregnancy and suicide.
It is the kind of good writing that a young adult readership deserve, with characters drawn in all of their contradictory complexity and in which those attendant ‘issues’ are not there for any simple kind of ‘relevancy’ but as part of the creation of the realistically tough world of contemporary Belfast in which Declan must begin to build an adult life.
The book’s depth is seen in how characters like Seaneen are developed here, and the way in which the first-person narrative invites readers to view a character like this through the sometimes callow eyes of its narrator but showing a gradual awareness of other qualities in her like compassion, empathy and courage, which he sometimes lacks.
The book’s title becomes a liet-motif of various shades woven through the text of the narrative, upsetting any simple expectation that a reader might have of its meaning and becoming deeper and more nuanced as the book continues.
The linked narrative of the little ghost boy, Cian, who appears at the beginning out of the ‘early-morning grey mist’ – 14, out of his head, ‘his hoody wet and rumpled’ with ‘puke on his trainers’ – and that of the ghost horse is brilliantly and subtly executed. The horse is found in conditions familiar to all of us from contemporary news stories, of horses found starving and ill or dead – the victims of cruelty and the economic downturn:
‘The horse lying down in the filthy straw is dead. It lies on its side, the rigging of its ribs like a wrecked ship. A foal stands over it, shaking on stick-thin legs, its head too big for its skinny neck to hold up. When it sees me it lets out a desperate squeal.’
Wilkinson offers no easy or trite solutions. Indeed in places, she seems to play with an earlier kind of equine genre in which all can be saved and live happily ever after. In the novel, the gorgeous possibility of the glamorous world of a German show-jumping yard of Hans-Peter Hilgenberg suggests where a pony club story might have gone to a happy ever after in the verdant fields and forests of Germany:
‘I see horses in neat paddocks and me travelling all round Europe. Riding all kinds of brilliant German horses… shining champion horses jumping impossible fences, the same horses at home grazing under huge trees.’
It would be wrong to think that this is a book of only one dark dimension – it is full of humour, the characteristic humour of Belfast that is part of what saves Declan. There are places I laughed out loud: for example the description of a formidable matriarch, Seaneen’s Granny, on his street, who used to chase the kids from her wall:
‘She’d come barging out, arms crossed under her big mono-boob, and shout, ‘Will youse’uns get off my wall; youse have your own frigging walls.’ Like anybody ever wanted to sit on their own wall.’
Or the depiction of Declan’s mother, who has acquired the California-speak of the women’s groups: ‘Mum keeps telling me Stacey had ‘self-esteem issues’ and she’s just glad to ‘be there for her’ and other expressions that would make you puke.'
The book’s vernacular never misses a beat in accuracy, it seems to me, and all of it done from an empathetic and sympathetic, if satirical, stance that makes it funny but not offensive.
The ending is devastating and beautifully written and, like the ending of Taking Flight, had this reader sobbing, so be prepared to be moved. Like so much of young adult fiction, Grounded deserves a wider readership and would be a great candidate for the next One City One Book Belfast reading initiative.
Grounded is out now, published by Little Island.