Review Blog

Feb 18 2013

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond

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Ill. by Oliver Jeffers. Walker, 2012. ISBN: 9781406320763.
(Ages: 7+) Author David Almond and illustrator Oliver Jeffers are well matched in this whimsical novel for younger readers; they share a childlike sense of humour which, in its less inspired moments, can easily seem affected and flat. The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas recounts (at a steady pace) the story of young Stanley Potts, who runs away with the circus after his uncle turns the family home into a fish cannery. Along the way, he meets a host of quirky people whose faith in him eventually enables him to overcome his chronic passivity as a character, and - spoiler alert - swim with piranhas.
There's subtle social commentary aplenty, all of which is handled skillfully enough that young readers will find it perfectly accessible, if a little tedious. First and foremost, however, this is a book about the pleasures of storytelling itself, and Almond fills most of it with playful, self-conscious language and metafictional showmanship. Alliteration abounds, fish figuratively 'flicker and flash', and Almond keeps his narratorial hand firmly on the reader's shoulder as he guides them through the imagined world of the story, even inviting them at one point to decide whether or not the villain should be eaten by piranhas. Techniques such as foreshadowing, tense switching, flexible focalisation and third person omniscient narration are explored with gusto. It is, in many ways, an English teacher's dream.
Parts of this novel are undeniably charming. There's Tickle Peter, the terminally glum circus performer who'll pay one hundred pounds to anyone who can make him laugh. Then there are the goldfish, who are so poetical that they exclaim 'O my companions!' but who seem incapable of saying anything else. For some, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas will be an offbeat treat, deliciously different from the straightforward storytelling that dominates children's fiction. Not all young readers, however, will enjoy watching Almond splashing around in puddles of language for 250 pages.
Samuel Williams

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