Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Certain books only work in the first person. I wouldn’t think Maggot Moon would work any other way: you need to experience the world through Standish Treadwell’s eyes—of two different colours. Sally Gardner creates an alternative history dystopia in which an authoritarian Motherland has absolute control, thanks to a combination of propaganda, self-policing, and secret police. It is going through the process of meticulously faking a moon landing, but a single dyslexic child with just enough gumption might be able to screw it up and expose the hoax.
Standish’s voice helps establish the creepiness of the Motherland’s regime. I imagine (because, fortunately, that’s all I can do—imagine) that the way he describes how the enforcers of the Motherland act is similar to how a child of resisters might have experienced Soviet Russia. Standish and his grandfather live in “Zone 7”, an area comprising an uncomfortable mixture of the collaborating, nouveau rich and those like Standish’s grandfather who have narrowly escpaed re-education. Like most children who have been hard done by, Standish views all adults who are not his grandfather with a certain amount of distrust: he has learned early to be wary of authority, so the actions of the hard Mr. Hellman and the kinder Miss. Phillips are viewed with the same lens of suspicion.
The perspective also means that Gardner doesn’t have to explain much. I struggled, at first, to decide whether I was comfortable with the dearth of exposition. There’s something to be said, when one is working in an unfamiliar world, for providing skilful primers. Ultimately, Maggot Moon doesn’t spend much time spelling out what its world is like or how it came to be, and I’m OK with that. Gardner still manages to tell her story, which is of paramount importance, and she doesn’t get too sidetracked.
In this respect, Maggot Moon reminds me a little of The Giver. The two are similar because they have protagonists who are different from the average child, who reject the dystopia around them and learn that there may be more to the world—Standish thanks to his grandpa and television, and Jonas thanks to the Giver. I wasn’t a fan of The Giver, particularly as a work of dystopian fiction for children. The opposite is true for Maggot Moon.
The totalitarian motif that Gardner taps in this story is going to be different depending on whether the reader is my age (or older) or a child. Most children, even older children who have learned about World War II and the Cold War, won’t necessarily understand the historical context in which Gardner’s world lives. This is why her lack of exposition, which effectively decouples the Motherland from any Earthly origins and sets it adrift on the sea of possibility, works well. Children will recognize that this is a world that tries so hard to be fair it is as unfair as it can be; it is a world of fear and darkness hidden by a shabby coat of brighter paint.
This is actually a rather depressing book. In retrospect, that should have been obvious. Consider the title: Maggot Moon. What an unattractive concept! Yet it makes perfect sense, given the nature of the book. And then there are the illustrations: the first pages of each chapter have an illustration going across the two facing pages, and it progresses (almost but not quite like a flipbook animation might) with each subsequent chapter. The first such illustration is simply of a fly flying across the page from left to right. Then, at the bottom of the page, a rat emerges from a hole. Then the illustrations become darker: the rat finds a bottle of poison, sniffs it, tips it over, and then tastes it out of curiosity. It dies, and as the rat’s corpse begins to decay, the fly lays its eggs, which hatch into maggots…. I actually reached a point where I started to find the entire process rather revolting. I’m not sure what children would think (or if they would notice it in the same way).
This is actually a book of hope. In retrospect, that is obvious. Though subtle in other ways, Gardner doesn’t conceal that Standish is a little bit of a Mary Sue as he prepares to play a pivotal role in trying to bring down the Motherland. He plans to show up on camera, to reveal that this moonlanding business is a hoax. Never mind the fact that there is no reason they would possibly be broadcasting the “moonwalk” live, that they couldn’t just edit out the footage of him spoiling the conspiracy. The point isn’t that we see Standish succeed: we see him try, try and struggle and maybe he succeeds. (The ending implies, at least to me, that he dies and joins Hector in heaven. But that isn’t really a downer anyway, is it?)
Maggot Moon is impressive because it manages that balancing act between complexity and subtlety required in books about weighty matters aimed at children. It’s not quite in the same league as Wonder … but it isn’t aiming to be. Whereas Wonder is character-driven, Maggot Moon is more about symbols and metaphors. This makes it simultaneously a more difficult and an easier book: more difficult, obviously, because it requires that extra layer of abstraction; and easier, because the characters are less complex, as they are there primarily to represent certain things.
All in all, it’s a good book. It hasn’t quite displaced Wonder as my favourite of the four nominees I’ve read so far, but I can see why people champion it, and champions it deserves.