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The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn GoldenThe Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden by Philippa Dowding
Dundurn 2014
E-ARC
200 pages
Children’s/YA Speculative Fiction



This morning I wake up on the ceiling.

Gwendolyn Golden lives with her mum and her much younger siblings, twins Christopher and Christine – or as she calls them, “the Chrissies” – and her fat beagle, Cassie. Gwendolyn is already going through a rough patch: now in grade eight, she’s experienced changes brought on by puberty and is still dealing with the ongoing anger management problem that she’s had since her dad disappeared during a storm before the twins were born. And now, on this fateful morning, she wakes up floating on the ceiling. Several mornings in a row, Gwen wakes up bumping gently against the ceiling and then against the screen window in her bedroom.

At first, Gwen has no control over it and her body threatens to float away during class – she worries about what might happen if she floated off into the sky while walking down the street. But soon, oblique comments made to her by two unlikely adults in her small town make her realise that she’s not alone; and that, in fact, her ability to fly is something she inherited. Gwendolyn’s coming-of-age journey will bring her up close to the truth of her new-found skill, and the decision of a lifetime.

It’s a rough age, being thirteen, fourteen years old and in the thick of all the changes that come with adolescence. Gwen has the added issue of losing her father years ago under mysterious circumstances. This detail is initially provided more as insight into understanding her anger issues, than a plot point, but as you can guess it does turn out to be very pertinent to the plot. Yet despite Gwen’s habit of blowing up at small provocations at school, she narrates her story with intelligent wit and more than a dash of irony. Like many teens, the character of Gwen is a precarious and sometimes volatile balance of childlike immaturity and wisdom, naïveté and insight, adolescent foolishness and glib artfulness. Gwen is on the cusp, and this is her coming-of-age story.

What I really admired, alongside the writing itself, was Dowding’s ability to maintain this fine balance. She put Gwendolyn in situations that forced her to confront her issues, thus putting her on the path to maturity, without making her grow up too fast. Gwen was able to keep hold of her childhood; it just became richer. I’m reminded of one of my favourite characters who similarly embodies this fine line between childhood and maturity: Danny from Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.

There are times when Gwen’s obstinateness and suspicious nature hold her back, but that too is something she must learn: trusting her instincts, but also how to turn to others and let herself be a child in the protection of adults. Another tricky line to straddle, in life as well as fiction. And it’s not helped, in Gwen’s case, by the fact that her body has taken on a life of her own. In the beginning I read Gwen’s sense of alienation with her body as a figurative representation of puberty; later, I came to read it as fantasy enriched with that layer of organic human matter that makes fantasy, as a genre, so appealing to us.

As soon as my body is free, it floats lazily toward the ceiling, where it bounces around for a few minutes, then settles gently, bumping up and down against the ceiling tiles.

I realize that I’m now talking about my body like an “it,” like it’s no longer connected to the rest of me. But that’s what it feels like. As if my body is totally in charge, and I’m just going along for the ride.

Which I guess I am.

This is very much Gwen’s story, and while there are sub-plots and supporting characters who are relevant and interesting, they’re not as vividly rendered as Gwen. Rather, because we see Gwen’s world through her eyes, her understanding, her adolescent perspective, we get a true-to-type view of the people in her life. Gwen is fairly self-absorbed, at times judgemental, quick to react and not very curious about other people or how they’re feeling. Not every teen is like that, or like that in the same way as Gwen, but it is part of Gwen’s coming-of-age narration that her world view enlarges and she becomes more sympathetic and even empathetic of others. She still has a way to go, but it’s a process that takes people years if not decades to learn.

I read this as a standalone novel, and while I’m not sure if it is one or not (I have since read that it’s the first in a series but I don’t know if that’s true or not; I should just ask the author eh?), I loved it as a standalone book. It’s kind of old-school, in that way, and maybe I’m traditional, but I loved the open-endedness to this story, and how Dowding created a fascinating layer to our world without removing the mystery and magic of it by explaining too much, thereby leaving plenty up to your own imagination. Dowding successfully balances humour and a touch of silliness with a dark menace that adds a macabre atmosphere to the story.

The decision that Gwen ultimately has to make can again be read metaphorically: in this pivotal time in a person’s life, many decisions we make are there to stay with us the rest of our lives. To some extent, we are shaped during our adolescence. Gwen’s decision is not merely about flying, but about how she will live her life. The ending can be viewed in several lights. It touches on genetics, and how these affect our lives, especially our future health and well-being. And it touches on the self: self-esteem, the creation of a personal identity, the need to be true to yourself, and the understanding that while the way others see you can deeply hurt you, you shouldn’t let it shape you.

The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden is the kind of coming-of-age story that resonates. Combining teen angst with magic and a dash of mystery creates a richly layered story, and Dowding presents a heroine that readers of all ages will surely be able to relate to. Humorous and touching, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden is like a finely-tuned musical instrument that, when thrummed, you feel in your very bones.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.

canadian book challenge #7

_______________________________________

Other Reviews:

“The first few chapters of the book were hilarious … But then … things got slow and weren’t exciting anymore. Another problem that I have with this book is that most of Gwen’s adventures aren’t that remarkable. It somehow failed to transport me into Wonderland.” Thoughts and Pens

“I liked it maybe because at recent times, I crave for more fun-filled easy reads than emotional ones. And I suppose that is the main strength. The slow pace and the improper character development may bore some of the audience.” Books are Magic

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