Monthly Archives: January 2014

Half Bad

Sally Green

Penguin

9780141350868

March 2014

hardback

Finished

The YA book you will want to have an opinion about this spring.

For reasons nothing to do with the readability of this novel I put it aside just before Christmas when half way through, then picked it up again once all the family visitors had left. This break in reading emphasised the fact that it is a book of two halves – the tone of the first half of the book (while Nathan is held captive) very different from the faster moving second half (when he is on the run).
Nathan is the son of a white witch mother and a black witch father. The novel is set in a realistic contemporary world in which white witches are quite commonplace. As Nathan is of mixed parentage he has to be presented (by his grandmother) to undergo various assessments aimed at determining what type of witch he is growing into. It is this opening section of the novel that reminded me much more of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, than of the blockbusters Penguin compared the novel with at its media launch event.
I often see it as a healthy sign when novelists struggle to summarise in just a few words what their own novels are about. At a recent Penguin presentation, Sally Green risked giving quite the wrong impression of the book when she talked about the “blacks” and the “whites” and the “blacks having been driven out”. To a casual listener with no prior knowledge of the book all this might suggest more than a hint of racial allegory, which would be unfortunate to say the least.
In fact the book is about classic young adult themes – rites of passage, identity, moral compass, freedom, family, romance – and it is these themes that Green so adroitly encompasses in the various narrative components of her novel. In a sense, the fact that it is about witches, good witches and bad witches, good witch genes and bad witch genes, is merely a device for addressing these themes.
The essential ingredient of the American TV series Homeland is that the viewer is left uncertain, as the episodes develop, of Nicholas Brody’s true allegiances. In the same way, in Half Bad, as the title itself implies, it is not clear how ‘white’ or how ‘black’ Nathan is behaving at any given time. I imagine this ambivalence will become even more marked a feature of the narrative in the next book in the trilogy.
Penguin is highly excited by Half Bad and I can see why. Green writes extraordinarily well, and the story makes for gripping reading. The fact that I liked the book so much might not be the greatest of omens for Green or for Penguin, as I tend not to be quite so enthusiastic about books that eventually become wildly popular, and books that I AM enthusiastic about usually have merely modest success. In all seriousness, I do wonder whether Green’s style might just be a little too lean and mean for the readership that has made lusher novels (Penguin are hoping for another Twilight or Hunger Games) such big hits. If they end up with a highly-praised novel that wins many awards (it is, I would suggest, Carnegie-Costa-etc.-shortlist-worthy) and an appreciative readership, but not a mega-successful media franchise, I hope neither publisher nor author will be disappointed.
I give the book 4 rather than 5 stars/ACHUKAchicks only because it is so clearly the first installment in a sequence.
What I particularly liked about the book is the fact that (for a book about witches) it is so well grounded in reality. The sequence set in Geneva towards the end of the novel is especially effective.
Had I read from cover to cover without interruption I would be in a better position to comment on the structure. The first half of the novel is necessarily claustrophobic. I remember thinking just before having to put it to one side, “is the narrative meandering just a little – isn’t it time something started happening?” But then when I picked it up again it all took off in earnest. It will be interesting to see what other readers think. It is important that the restraint under which Nathan is held for so long, and the physical duress he suffers, is properly established, and Green does this during that first part of the novel terrifically well, not pulling her punches.
It is probably best that I do not say too much about Marcus, Nathan’s father, except that his existence becomes an increasingly important feature of the novel, as does, to a lesser but nevertheless promising extent, the love-interest character, Annalise.

I haven’t mentioned yet that Half Bad is a debut novel. How about that?