It’s no secret that I adored Bang Crunch, a collection of short stories by Montreal-based writer Neil Smith. So, when I heard he was coming to the city for the Ottawa International Writers Festival, to read from his first novel Boo, I was ecstatic.
Then, I heard about the premise of his book. It’s narrated by 13-year-old Oliver Dalrymple who’s dead and hanging out in Heaven—a place called “Town” inhabited solely by dead, 13-year-old American kids—trying to find out who killed him. I got a bit leery. It sounded too much like The Lovely Bones, the overrated novel that once made my eyes bleed. Profusely. But, after hearing Smith read the first chapter of Boo and explaining the inspiration for his book, I decided to give the book a chance. Thank “Zig” (aka God according to Oliver) because it was awesome.
Oliver’s a pale (hence the nickname Boo), socially-awkward kid. He’s in Town, writing his thoughts and experiences in a manuscript for his still-living parents. Early on, he reveals, “I learned I was no good at small talk, perhaps because I do not know how to make small talk.” You see, he was a loner without any friends during his short time on Earth. He’s got an outrageous IQ that explains his eloquent language and obsession with the periodic table. Full disclosure: I fell in love with this quirky character in Chapter 1.
He becomes friends with maternal, heavyset Thelma, a cynical girl with dwarfism called Esther, and Johnny with a double-crown that “according to [Oliver’s] Grandmother, meant two separate spirits inhabited a person’s body.” Johnny, it turns out, was also killed at school alongside Oliver. Having friends is a new experience for Oliver. When making Johnny laugh for the first time, he thinks, “I am normally not this playful. Maybe Zig altered my personality to better suit my surroundings.” I loved watching Oliver learn to connect with other people. By the time the gang sets out to find out who killed the boys, I was 100% engaged on how the journey transforms Oliver.
The landmarks and the streets in Town are a nod to novels and characters we loved as kids and teenagers: the Meg Murray Infirmary, The Gene Forrester Jail, the Jerry Renault Park, and Boo Bradley Street. On top of that, there are endearing scenes in Boo that emulate the Children’s Literature. It’s fitting, considering the characters are all thirteen-year-olds. But don’t be fooled; this book is laced with dark humour and themes intended for an adult audience. It looks at suicide, murder, mental illness, and loneliness in a new light.
I loved reading this book even though the dialogue, the knowledge, and behaviors of the kids felt too mature and stable at times. I kept expecting the narrative to unravel in true Lord of the Flies fashion. It didn’t. Not really. But, that was part of the book’s charm and the reason I’m still thinking about it today. If you love dark humour and are still a child at heart, I urge you to follow Oliver on his quest. With a box of tissues at the ready.