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Posts Tagged ‘Siobhan Dowd

A young boy with Aspergers. A mystery. An English author. These descriptors all might seem as I’m talking about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Instead I’ve just finished reading The London Eye Mystery, a book that Siobhan Dowd delayed publishing due to Haddon’s book bursting on the scene. Her book is as well-written and thought-provoking as the rest of her titles, as well as simply being a fun romp.

Main character, Ted, isn’t your typical kid. I’m not just saying that because he has Aspergers and so has a brain that “runs on its own unique operating system”. In the fiction that I’ve read so far which has featured a young person who falls on the autism spectrum, the common traits run along these lines: struggles in social situations, lacks empathy, becomes easily overwhelmed to the point of aggression, prefers the logical and literal, misunderstands anything figurative, and excels in math and/or language skills. Ted is different.

While Ted’s strength is not communication, that lies with his sister, Ted does know how to read basic facial expressions. He also knows ways to adapt himself to social situations including laughing at jokes—even when he doesn’t understand them. Indeed, no matter which trait you look at, Ted seems to have figured out the proper way to act in the majority of situations. For example, when his brain gets overwhelmed by trying to figure out where his cousin has disappeared, he jumps up and down on his bed as if it were a trampoline or escapes into the family back garden to clear his mind. Never once does he have a tantrum or any other form of meltdown. In addition, instead of disliking figurative language, Ted ponders what each new phrase means and even shares favorites with readers. What most stood out to me about Ted is his atypical obsession, that of weather, which actually helps him solve the London Eye mystery.

Speaking of mysteries…. I like the one in this novel that is aimed at young people from ages 8-12. Granted, the mystery isn’t terribly complicated, even though Ted comes up with nine theories about the whereabouts of his cousin who never returned from his round-trip on the London Eye. Like me, you’ll probably figure out at least the first half of the mystery before or around the same time as Ted. The fun really isn’t in staying in the dark, but in seeing Ted and his sister bond as they track down the mysterious stranger who gave their cousin a free ticket to ride on the London Eye, and in watching Ted learn to overcome the challenges of his Aspergers when he needs to confront his parents, relatives, and even strangers while on the trail for clues. To her credit, Dowd also throws in a few twists and turns to the mystery that just might keep you guessing until the reveal.

As with many fine novels, it took time for me to like The London Eye Mystery. Once I did, however, I discovered there were several scenes to savor. One is when the Ted’s family learns that a body similar to that of his missing cousin has shown up. In the time it takes for the dad to drive to and from the morgue, Ted comes face-to-face with death in a moving moment. “I realized it was real. I would die one day. Kat would die one day. Mum would die. Dad would die…. Of course, I’d known about death before. But during those fifty-four minutes I really knew it.” Ted’s thoughts even lead to God. Unlike the main character of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time who is an atheist, Ted stays open to the idea that God might exist. Ted also feels confused and scared, traits not always portrayed in characters who fall on the Autism spectrum.

Dowd had apparently planned The London Eye Mystery as the first in a series. Especially because of how she explored disability as a gift, it’s unfortunate that there will be not be any sequels. In 2007, three months after being named one of 25 ‘authors of the future,’ Dowd died of breast cancer. Prior to her death, Dowd published four novels for young people, all of which I highly recommend.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Solace of the Road is the second novel I’ve read by Irish author, Siobhan Dowd. In telling the story of a foster kid, Dowd in many way ways treads on familiar ground. At the same time, Dowd has incorporated enough twists to make this a memorable story. She has also created an original character, for whom we deeply feel.

Fourteen-year-old Holly is in foster care. Daily she thinks of running away. Miles away in Ireland is her mom, the perfect guardian. Through no fault of either of them, the two got separated and now must find a way back to each other. For Holly, leaving foster care would mean saying goodbye to Miko. He works at the foster care home and is one of the only adults to care for her. For her mom, reuniting with Holly might mean giving up a loser boyfriend.

Because of other novels which I have read about foster care, it didn’t come as a surprise to me Holly was deluded about how perfect her mom was. I also knew that it was more than likely that one adult had tried to reach out to Holly since she landed in foster care and that Holly has been too badly hurt to accept them. In other words, other than the unfamiliar location of Ireland, the plot to a certain extent resembles other foster care books I’ve read.

On one hand, that doesn’t matter. For one thing, there aren’t exactly an abundance of stories on foster kids. For another thing, the commonality in plots simply means Solace of the Road should be a fairly accurate depiction of foster care. Indeed, Dowd did take a child rights training course and talk to many social workers in Oxford. On the other hand, for several chapters, Solace of the Road didn’t feel like anything new. Thus, for a while I wasn’t sure if it would feel memorable.

What I most appreciated is twofold. First, Holly is an original character in her own right. While at a temporary placement, Holly takes a liking to a blond wig. With it, she finds herself able to take on a new persona, one that is several years old than her. With it, she feels that she’ll come out smarter than the adults around her and her peers. Yet underneath it, she’s still a scared and vulnerable fourteen-year-old, who is really no different from those around her. Second, Dowd ultimately does break new ground, in that she actually has Holly hit the road. Holly doesn’t remained resigned to the foster care system, bounce from one foster home to another, or even try to stick it out with her placement. The road arguably may not have ended up being as dangerous for Holly as reality might be, yet it still felt real enough. Holly ended up hitching some rides, but she also got stuck outside at night in the elements. As for the rides offered her, some came from sympathetic drivers and others from creeps. Along her travels, Holly found herself forced to think about the choices she was making and what she really wanted from life.

Actually, there is a third aspect which I appreciate about Solace of the Road. As with every novel Dowd wrote, it’s well-crafted with emotional resonance. When Dowd died in 2007 of breast cancer, the literary world lost a bright talent.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

In May 2007, Siobhan Dowd was named one of 25 ‘authors of the future’. She died of breast cancer three months later. Both Bog Child and Solace of the Road were published after her death. I reviewed Bog Child last year. Tomorrow I’ll review Solace of the Road. Save the date: December 5!


SiobhanDowdSiobhan Dowd was the youngest of four daughters of an Irish nurse and older doctor husband. Though she was born in London, from an early age Dowd was Irish at heart. She spent much of her youth visiting the family cottage in County Waterford and later the family home in Wicklow Town. Throughout her life, The Guardian reports, Dowd manifested Celtic spontaneity, bursting into song when an accordion played,or leaping up to dance to a favorite tune.

After attending a Roman Catholic grammar school in south London, Dowd earned a Bachelor of Arts Honors in Classics from Oxford University. According to The Guardian, Dowd empathized with the condition and cultures of marginalized peoples, including Irish travelers and the Roma, and so decided to co-edit an anthology of Romany poems and short prose pieces. When she decided to do postgraduate work in gender and ethnic studies at Greenwich University in London, she focused on how Roma relate to their community’s narratives and stereotypes. She was awarded a Master of Arts Distinction in Gender and Ethnic Studies from Greenwich University.

After a short stint in publishing, Dowd joined the writer’s organization PEN in 1984, initially as a researcher for its Writers in Prison Committee. While there, she edited collections of writings by authors and journalists imprisoned for their work.

The Guardian notes that these skills enabled her to move on to spend seven years in New York, carrying out similar work for American PEN. She went on to be Program Director of PEN American Center’s Freedom-to-Write Committee in New York City. Her work here included founding and leading the Rushdie Defense Committee USA and travelling to Indonesia and Guatemala to investigate local human rights conditions for writers. She was prolific in the production of reports and articles. During her seven-year spell in New York, Siobhan was named one of the “top 100 Irish-Americans” for her global anti-censorship work.

In 1997, Dowd returned to London to spend more time with her family. A few years later, she met her second husband, a librarian at Oxford Brookes University. They married in March 2001 in Wales.

On her return to the UK, Dowd also co-founded the English PEN’s readers and writers program. The program takes authors into schools in socially deprived areas, young offender’s institutions, and community projects. Dowd also became increasingly interested in children, leading to her appointment in 2004 as deputy commissioner for children’s rights in Oxfordshire. In this position, Dowd working with local authorities to ensure that statutory services affecting children conformed to UN protocols.

The Guardian reports that Dowd settled happily in west Oxford, before receiving the diagnosis of breast cancer. Her second husband, Geoff Morgan, is quoted by The Independent as always intending to settle down to write, but also having so many other things to do: “She always felt that she needed to experience life first in order to write to the standard that she aspired to. What she hadn’t expected, when she finally got round to writing, was that she would have so little time left.”


DowdBooksAn invitation to contribute a story to a collection of short stories for children about racism, Skin Deep, led to a new career for Dowd as an author of children’s books. Wikipedia states that Dowd was inspired by this success to continue writing for children and developed close friendships with two established children’s authors, with whom she would meet regularly to chat about their work and discuss children’s literature.

In 2003, Dowd began writing a children’s book about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome who solves a mystery. She was halfway through writing it when Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, with its similar theme, made its debut. According to The Guardian this caused Dowd to put aside for a while what would later become her second published novel, The London Eye Mystery.

Dowd had been writing both The London Eye Mystery and A Swift Pure Cry before her diagnosis. The chemotherapy made it hard for her to write but she kept with it. Her husband, Morgan, is quoted by The Independent as saying, “We always tried to brainwash ourselves that she would live forever. It was the only way we could approach her illness–to grab every strand of hope.”

A Swift Pure Cry was based on events in Ireland in the early 1980s, in which a 15-year-old girl struggles to survive in a world of poverty, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and moral hypocrisy, and was Dowd’s first novel to appear in print. Dowd wrote it in three months in the autumn of 2004. Children’s publisher David Fickling, who runs his own imprint within Random House is quoted by The Independent as saying, “What I remember most clearly about A Swift Pure Cry was that it was extraordinarily well written for a first novel. So much so, in fact, that it didn’t really read like a first novel at all. It was as if it had sprung fully fledged from Siobhan’s imagination. Her prose style was very simple, but always pertinent and poetic.” A Swift Pure Cry was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.

The Independent says that at first, Dowd made no mention of her illness to her publisher. Even when she told him of her battle with cancer, she insisted that it be kept secret in case it distracted from the books. When her publisher, Fickling, asked her if she felt her brush with death had played some part in the extraordinary outpouring of creativity in those last two and a half years of her life,” Dowd denied it. “She simply said that she had always wanted to write but hadn’t got round to it. It was a straightforward reply, but perhaps there was an element of not even wanting to contemplate the alternative in case it got in the way–like all those clichés about an electric light bulb burning brightest just before it goes. Siobhan wasn’t the sort of person who wanted to think like that.”

In the last year of her life, Dowd developed a friendship with the children’s author Meg Rosoff, who had also been diagnosed with breast cancer. The two shared a platform at the London Book Fair in 2005. The Independent quotes Rosoff as saying, “I had just finished having treatment for breast cancer and talked about that to the audience and how it had impacted on my writing. Siobhan talked only about the thrill of publishing her first novel. Afterwards, as we sat together on the stage, she leant over and whispered, ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have breast cancer too.’ My memory is that the diagnosis was already clear, that it had spread. I’m certain that she knew she wasn’t going to live a long time, and that must have played a part in the urgency that she felt, writing as if her life depended on it.”

I found myself forgetting very quickly she was ill, which is I think what she wanted me to do. So when she died, I was profoundly shocked by it. She never evinced illness. She never talked about it. And I have an abiding sense of how much more she had to do, where she might have flown.

–David Fickling, The Independent

Siobhan didn’t wear illness on her sleeve. As far as I knew, she was doing all right and then suddenly, out of the blue, I got a text from her, saying her chemo had gone wrong and she was in a hospice. At first I thought I was misunderstanding what a hospice was for. She couldn’t be dying, I thought, but the next day she did.

–Meg Rosoff, The Independent

Before her death, the Siobhan Dowd Trust was established. The proceeds from Dowd’s literary work are being used to assist, fund, and support disadvantaged young readers where there is no funding or support.

In looking for books about bogs, I came across Bog Child by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd. Her exceptional young adult novel is also about family, religion, sacrifice, and Ireland’s Troubles in 1981. In other words, it’s far more complex than I expected.

If you don’t know anything about bog bodies, Dowd’s novel is a great place to start. In it, eighteen-year-old Fergus and his Uncle Tally find a female body buried in the bog while they’re out shoveling peat. In case you aren’t aware, peat is commonly used for fuel. Thinking that they have discovered a murder victim, they call the police. Turns out, they should’ve called an archeologist. The body has not been in the bog for weeks or months but for years. In case you also aren’t aware, bogs preserve bodies kind of like mummies in Egyptian tombs. All kinds of other information is learned when the archeologists arrive. For example, the woman is wearing a gold bangle, which she would have made a good sacrifice. Then again, there’s also a rope around her neck, suggesting she might have been hung as a criminal before being thrown into the bog. That’s the thing about bog bodies: scientists can identify their gender, age, and season of death, but normally not the reason they are in the bog. What makes Bog Child such an engaging and informative read is that Fergus starts having dreams about the buried woman, whom he names Mel, and the nature of her death. These dreams are intertwined with his muddled feelings about his brother, who is on a hunger strike.

You see, besides learning about bog bodies, I also received many chapters-worth of education about a period known as Ireland’s Troubles. While being aware of Ireland’s internal strife, Ireland’s occurred during my high school years and so escaped my notice. A Google search revealed that in 1981, Irish political prisoners went on a hunger strike during the time Margaret Thatcher was in power in Great Britain. Important to this movement was Bobby Sands, who died for the cause. In Bog Child, there are numerous references to soldiers, border checkpoints, bomb-makers, Semtrax, courier recruitment, hunger strikes, and violence. On a more personal level, Fergus (and his family) struggles to make sense of his brother’s decision to join other protesting prisoners in a hunger strike. At one point, Uncle Tally expresses the hope for all of them that, “One day the only border will be the sea and the only thing guarding it the dunes and the only people living in it Republicans.” Yet Bog Child isn’t a pro-war book. One of the most-touching friendships is between Fergus and an enemy soldier Owain, whom Fergus discovers is just another regular guy like him.

Intriguing as I found all of the above, the backdrop of Ireland meant that I also found Bog Child at times a little difficult to understand. Besides finding myself lacking in knowledge about Ireland’s political wars, I felt like a student in having to guess at the meaning of several words. For example, did you know that “gorse” is a spiny and prickly shrub that thrives in dry acidic soils? Or that “lough” is pronounced “lock” and means “lake”? Now while words like those didn’t significantly hinder my understanding of the story, other words such as “JCB” and “Provo” proved more important to know. As best as I could determine from a Google search, “JCB” refers to agricultural machinery while “Provo” refers to a member of the Irish Republican Army who used guerilla warfare in an effort to drive British forces from Northern Ireland.

Being set in Ireland, it might not come as a surprise to anyone that Fergus and his family are Catholic. However, I must caution that Fergus is a not a believer. He refers to church as a place that one must attend, no matter what their feelings about God. As to those feelings, he stopped believing in God about the same time he stopped believing in Santa Claus. His soldier friend Owain is Protestant instead, but has also fallen in the faith.

Yet none of the negatives should deter you from reading Bog Child. It is full of happiness and sadness, joys and tragedies, and is one of the most original stories about growing-up that I’ve read.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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