A tale of two cities. Gloucester and London.
A tale of two boys. Toby, saved from an African slave ship; Aaron, the illegitimate son of the heir to a great estate.
A tale of fathers and sons. Otis, dealing in the vilest trade of all, and his son Meshak, not quite of this world; Sir William Ashbrook, landowner, and Alexander, the son he disinherits…
The beginning of Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy was captivating. Set in the eighteenth century, and uncomfortably controversial in its subject matter, I was excited to see where the story might take me. I love books that dramatise events from history, because it makes that knowledge more accessible to young readers. Coram Boy features the real Foundling hospital of the eighteenth century, and the Coram Foundation does in fact still exist today; this is one of the reasons why I picked Jamila Gavin’s novel to read (and study) instead of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines when it came to deciding between the two for a university assignment. However, having chosen it with such hope – it was, after all, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal at the turn of the century – I found myself with a certain sense of disappointment by the end of the book.
Only a few chapters in, it lost me. If it hadn’t been required for my studies, I might have returned it to the library, accepted it as a defeat. Instead, I spent two to three weeks plodding through those two hundred and fifty remaining pages, unable to actually put my finger on exactly what the problem was. I finally came to the conclusion that the writing style just didn’t agree with me. With the themes of child labour and murder, I had been certain the author was writing for a young adult audience, yet the third-person narrator described events in a tone that felt better suited to much younger teens. Despite my enjoyment of reading picture books and children’s classics as a part of my uni module, the conflict of theme and tone in Coram Boy wasn’t sitting right with me.
Saying that, however, I heard the book was adapted into a play, which I actually think would have been beautiful; with music acting as such a powerful tool in the story, I think it would translate well to stage.
Personally, I can’t say I would recommend the book to a friend, but I certainly appreciate that Jamila Gavin has taken a tragic era of England’s history, and has found a way of transcribing the events to a young audience. My own feelings aside, I think it is successful in what it was trying to achieve, which is most likely why it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. However, it just wasn’t for me.
Star Rating: ☆☆ (2/5)