Last week, I talked about Siobhan Dowd, who died far too early, and left two manuscripts behind. I read one of them: Bog Child, Edgar nominee this year. I was careful not to let the fact that Ms. Dowd was no more cloud my opinion of this book. The point of my reading all the nominees was, after all, to take an honest look at YA mysteries. Heartbreaking stories aside.
So I cleared my head and began reading. Bog Child is set in the eighties, in Ireland, during the time of the Troubles (as the book calls them). We’re knee-high in Irish/British politics, right along with Fergus, who’s preparing to take his exams (A-levels, for those of you familiar with the school system over there): stress #1. Then along with his uncle, he finds a buried body in the bog: stress #2. It’s the body of a child, later revealed from 80 A.D., and an archeologist comes in with her pretty-but-troubled teenaged daughter (stress #3) to examine and study the remains.
Meanwhile (thought we were done, huh?) Fergus’ brother Joe is in prison for his IRA activities, and has just become part of the hunger strike aimed to get the prisoners special status from Thatcher (remember her? I wish I didn’t…). And no one in the family, including Fergus, seems to be able to persuade Joe to eat: stress #4. To make things worse, his brother’s old friend is pressuring Fergus to run packages across the British-controlled border: stress #5.
It took me a chapter or two to get spun up on the IRA/eighties politics. I was hairbrush singing along with Madonna right around the time this hunger strike was happening, after all. And I can imagine an American teen might have some trouble grasping the book too—though a challenge is not a bad thing. However, once I got my bearings reading this book, it completely sucked me in. The writing is great—lots of showing, no telling. Fergus is easy to relate to: he has his plate full, and just wants to get the hell out of Ireland and become a doctor.
This book has so many layers (see all the above-mentioned stresses), it would have been easy for the story to feel scattered. But reading Bog Child was like listening to an orchestra, with the author as the brilliant conductor. It was perfect.
But… In context of the Edgar nomination, I have to say that the mystery component was, in my opinion, not strong enough to warrant a win, and I’m even not persuaded it should’ve been nominated, despite the brilliance. This is not a mystery—not even crime fiction, even, unless you reaaaaallly stretch the term. Yes, there’s a dead body with a mystery. But it just doesn’t fit the genre beyond that.
You must, must, must read this book. It sings.