Once again, Frank Boyce has written a book about quirky but believable families and communities. The only surprise is finding them all in one place. Dylan Hughes is our point-of-view character, and through his recognisably 9-year-old mind we are introduced to the others in the town of Manod and to a clutch of the most famous paintings of the London National Gallery.
The main conceit of the plot is based on the apparently factual wartime evacuation of the National Gallery collection to a disused slate mine outside Blaenau Ffestiniog, Wales. Here, the scene is set in the near future after floods have caused the building of a new Thames Barrier and forced Parliament, the Royal Family and the National Gallery to move to higher ground. Due to a misunderstanding between Dylan, lover of the classically named Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the expert from the National Gallery, lover of classical artists, Dylan is taken on as an unofficial selector of the Nation’s Weekly Painting to be displayed in the capital.
There is a kind of dual thread running through the book. On the one hand, the effect which paintings have on people; on the other hand, the effect which people have on each other. Each painting Dylan chooses affects someone, and ultimately affects the whole town. “Terrible” Evans sees in Massy’s A Grotesque Old Woman a point of comparison beside which anyone else feels beautiful. Dylan’s Mam sees a party on sticks in Renoir’s The Umbrellas. Mr Davis gets a whole new lease of life when he sees Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère and so on. At the same time, individuals and whole families leave the village, despairing of life ever prospering there. Only Dylan seems convinced of Manod’s greatness. There is no real happy ending as such, but a few threads and a few families do come together, and there are moments aplenty along the way when you feel like cheering. It’s just a village at the end of the road by a worn-out slate mine, but it manages to lift your heart.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.