Glenn Jackson (13) has to adjust as he is uprooted from his home in Burnley to a village in Cumbria, but his mother refuses to come without explaining why, and he finds it difficult to fit into the village community. So he takes to the hillsides roundabout to exercise his talent for art. And there he meets Harvey Quinn, a giantesque simpleton who hardly knows his own name and who believes he is hiding from unknown pursuers. Unable to do much else, Glenn brings him food while keeping his presence a secret from the locals, especially from “Father” Charlie, a reliigious minister turned farmer who struts around with a shotgun.
Meanwhile Glenn attempts to fit in at school with difficulty, not helped by the local gossip mill’s version of his family’s situation – about which he is himself not really quite sure – and his dad’s ability to misjudge the kind of humour which a pub will appreciate. Glenn does have feelings for Laura, adopted sister of the standoffish Lavinia, and is befriended by hearing-aided Baz with his wild schemes for contacting aliens from the nearby hilltops.
Glenn himself is no ideal. When the local bully knocks him over on the way to school, Glenn knocks back, and the bully goes onto someone’s car. When he hears that his girlfriend has stolen from her sister’s collecting tin, Glenn is startled but doesn’t remonstrate. Nor does he hesitate to lie to the police in order to paint a blacker picture of the self-important “Father” Charlie, too ready to point his gun. He revels in his mild fantasies about his girlfriend, encouraging a fairly passionate relationship when they do finally meet in private. Yet when Glenn, pursuing his most innocent pastime of drawing, comes across Harvey hiding in a disused shack in the hills, something keeps Glenn’s mouth shut. He spends his own money to buy Harvey food and goes out of his way to keep the simple giant out of trouble, half-conscious that he’s doing something his mum would have done if she’d been there.
The character of “Father” Charlie is a curious one. He plays the role of the arrogant landowner who doesn’t understand the sensitive matter which the younger characters have understood – in this case, the need to protect Harvey. The unusual thing is his clerical position. He describes himself as someone who : “… used to be a priest in me youth. Took up the Lord’s work in farming.” and he wears a silver cross and has “In God We Trust” as a windscreen sticker. It’s unclear whether he still considers himself a minister or merely a Christian. But his character is at best arrogant and at worst despicable. In the epilogue chapters, Glenn returns to a grave where a cross has been set up, and suspects that this is represents an apology on Charlie’s part.
Harvey, the self-styled “Harlequin Grim” of the title, is the product of an unfortunate situation: elderly parents, living in an isolated spot, unable to give their difficult child the help he needs, motivated by love and generosity but hampered by practicality. After a tragic accident caused by Harvey, he is taken into care in which he never really flourishes. No-one is held up to blame for this, but the result is that he is a wild creature, unruly and unwanted, bringing his own tragedy upon himself. He steals food and money to eat, but only in desperation and without really understanding what he’s doing. When attacked he’s murderously violent, but again without a clear understanding of what he’s doing.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. To read his entire review of The Great Harlequin Grim, go to his blog, www.goodtoread.org.