Goblin by Ever Dundas [A Review]

In Ever Dundas’ first novel, a young girl takes the reader on an adventure. Escaping the horrors of a childhood in wartime London, Goblin searches for her place in the world. Something of an oddball, but with her own charm, Goblin’s adventures are a matter of survival and a search for a family who will accept her uniqueness. One thing Goblin will not be deterred from is her love of animals and her insistence on their rights. But the horrors of her childhood, that have spent a lifetime buried, are about to return to the surface.

A grizzly find is made at a London cemetery. A cache of buried items are uncovered including animal remains, doll parts and a camera. The camera film is in remarkably good condition but when the pictures are printed, the situation only becomes more disturbing. Apparently taken during the time of the Blitz, while some photographs depict normal family scenes, some are positively macabre – pictures of dead cats and dogs piled up in mounds.

Some of the less disturbing photos are published in newspapers in the hope that someone will recognise the people in them and help solve the mystery about them. Given the angle at which some of the photos have been taken, some speculate they were taken by a child who might still be alive today. The publishing of the photos prompts a public debate about the ‘pet massacre’ – an almost-forgotten event early in the Blitz where people, concerned that they would be unable to feed or care for their pets during the bombing, chose instead to euthanise them en masse after suggestions from the government to do so and new laws that made caring for pets difficult. An estimated 400,000 pets were disposed of by Londoners in the early days of the war. Some who remember the event insisting that they did what they thought was right at the time.

‘It’s been happening all over,’ said Mac.

‘What?’

‘This,’ he gestured to the mound of dead bodies. ‘It’s been happening all over.’

‘Who’s doing it?’

‘We are,’ […]

‘I don’t believe it,’

‘It’s right here,’ Mac said, pointing to the bodies. ‘What’s there to believe?’

‘People won’t just go and kill their family for no reason.’

‘They’re pets, you idiot. They’re just pets.’

Soon an elderly man comes forward saying he knows who took the photos. Pointing to a young girl in one of them, he says it was her camera. He knew her well but never knew her name. He knew her only as ‘Goblin’.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Mrs Bradfield, an eighty-one year old woman who mostly keeps to herself and works at a local library, seems to suddenly find herself struggling. She has begun seeing things she knows aren’t there, accosting people in the street and fainting. A bit of a loner, she has few friends, but they come to help her at this time of need. What they find is that the old woman is an alcoholic, who hasn’t been taking care of herself for a while.

Soon she is being called by a detective. He knows she is Goblin and wants her to come down to London to answer questions.

Goblin refuses. She knows that was is happening to her is the result of a past, that she has literally tried to bury and run away from, finally catching up with her. And she needs to get her story straight first. It is a story of things no child ought to witness. Of escaping to a nomadic life. Of love and difficult relationships, pain and loss and the stories we invent to cope.

I come out of my fever and I know that I need to be in control. The past will not sweep over me.

Goblin proceeds on two timelines. One of the elderly Goblin, putting her life story together on an old typewriter while avoiding calls from detectives and reporters. The other, the result of the first, begins with the story of Goblin as a young child in London when war is declared. Though she has an unloving mother, her life does have some compensations. There is David, the older brother she shares a room with and absolutely adores, and her father who is affectionate though can be stubborn and righteous. There is also Devil, her dog and constant companion, named after the wolf sidekick of her favourite comic hero – the Phantom.

Goblin is somewhat of a tomboy and an oddball. She hangs out, and plays with a couple of friends, at an abandoned worksite. She has a taste for horror and science fiction; she loves the novels of HG Wells, while her brother taking her to see the film Bride of Frankenstein was one of her favourite childhood memories. Not long after she could be found playing in a cemetery in the middle of the night, shouting “It’s alive!!” while rain and lightning crash around her!

The arrival of war destroys what little normalcy and family life she has. She witnesses and experiences things no child should have to and soon she finds herself burying the past and running away.

As the elderly Goblin shares the story of her life, one of frequent movement and little settling down, it is a life filled with people as unique as she is. It is one of the themes of the novel – the lives of those who do not neatly fit into a uniform society that has little tolerance for nonconformity – of others and oddballs, runaways and outcasts, alternative people with alternative lifestyles. The novel shows that it is possible to find yourself a new family if your birth family was unloving; that no matter how unique you are, you will find others to share your life with.

With an early focus on the life of a child during the war, the novel also explores the role of children during wartime. Children, just being children, trying the live no differently than at peacetime are now told over and over ‘don’t you know there’s a war on?’, as if their childhood has been put on hold. How children cope, if they even can, with the horrors they witness and the losses they experience is at the heart of the novel.

Storytelling, for Goblin, as a lover of reading and storytelling, becomes a method of coping. When she first sees the barrage balloons she imagines it is a Martian invasion, like from War of the Worlds. She often reads to her friends, tells them fantastical stories she weaves out of her life or turns their play into something bigger by crafting stories around them.

I’m a storyteller. I control the past. I greet it as it comes in fragments, in ink, in the ether. I shall greet it and we shall dance in the darkness, scuttling and climbing and speeding through tunnels with the lizards down below.

Obviously, animal rights is a main theme of the novel. Goblin has a genuine, intuitive love for animals and in telling her life story, her relationships with the animals she has known are as important as her human relationships. Goblin often finds she cannot trust humans the way she can trusts animals.

All the adults say it’s for the best. All the adults say, “There’s a war on”.

As she grows up, she frequently fights to create awareness and appreciation for the lives and suffering of animals, which often lands her in trouble. It is complex though, for a period during the war, for example, she did hunt rabbits when her survival depended on it. In the context of war and its aftermath, ‘evil’ is fought against and ‘justice’ is pursued, but not for the animal victims.

‘Goblin, it’s about their lack of voice. It’s so that we have some compassion and can speak up on their behalf.’

‘What right do we have to speak for them? If I couldn’t speak, I wouldn’t want someone pretending to say things for me, like they’d even know what I’d say without even asking.’

‘You do it every day. You do exactly that.’

I scowled at him and said, ‘I’m just trying to give them a good life.’

By taking the view of a child during the war, the war aspect of the novel is constricted. It is not about soldiers and Nazis and fighting for freedom on the beaches, but about civilians and children mostly living far away from all that. Like the themes around animal rights, the war is simplified and the apologist arguments, the mythology of the second world war, made to dissolve away. In doing so, the novel illuminates a dark side to the allies in the war – the pet massacre, the treatment of conscientious objectors, the treatment of homosexuals and people with disabilities, the evacuation of children to Cornwall, the use of internment camps. All of which makes the reader wonder whose freedoms will be defended on the beaches? Were they ever enjoyed by all? As well as animals and children, the early victims of total war include pluralism and the freedom of dissent.

Despite the suffering and horrors it exposes, Goblin is not terribly dark or bleak, but lighter and hopeful. Despite quickly flickering between timelines, it is not a difficult read. And despite its important themes, it is not preachy but humanising. Like the main character, Goblin is a novel that will be enjoyed by those looking for something different and discovering how much there is in common.

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