This book is a beautifully crafted, bright and deep novel which addresses some really heavy subjects: toxic masculinity, fear, abuse, protection and growing up. And yet, it manages to deliver its lessons on the sly, distracting the reader with perilous plot and beautiful imagery until you hit the sucker-punch ending.
In many ways, ‘The Boy, the Boat and the Beast’ feels like a little life-raft that’s bobbed to the surface of the ocean of children’s books we’re currently being drowned in. The market is completely saturated with books for young humans, and standing out among those is a hell of a feat. One thing that has made TBTBATB stand out (one down side, it’s a damn long title for reviewing), is that it’s managed to hook and bewitch adults as well as the intended child audience of 8-12 year olds.
This is a spoiler-free review, and because the whole book is a process of understanding and unravelling from the first moment, I really can’t tell you anything more about the plot other than where it starts: when our young boy wakes up, a little injured, alone, on a beach. But the ‘feel’ of the book is something altogether different.
While reading, I couldn’t help but be reminded of ‘Hatchet’, a 1987 young-adult wilderness survival book by Gary Paulsen which is well known to a certain US generation (as it was taught in schools for a while). I read it recently and loved it entirely, enjoying the process of the protagonist learning and becoming more confident through a horrifying ordeal. TBTBATB feels similar, younger; as if you’re in a Hatchet dream sequence.
It’s the kind of book that could be summarised in a sentence and told as a short story, but you’ll be glad Clark didn’t. The plot is simple enough for baby brains to understand and enjoy, but also delivers emotional gut-punches for the older ones peeking through the branches of Clark’s metaphors. It’s fairly obvious to an advanced reader what’s happened, and who-what the monster is, but it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the book a jot. A big stand-out theme in the book is hope – hope that we will find out what is happening to the boy, hope that he’ll escape the monster, hope that he’ll find his parents and his brother – hope that everything, though scary right now, will be OK in the end.
A few times I felt that the points about toxic masculinity were overdone, as they were embedded in the text over and over again. But as a child, I would probably need that prompt – the black-and-white picture of knights and strong men contrasted to this scared little boy, so that I could really appreciate the ending of the book. I’m not going to hold it against this book for spelling out some of the L-E-A-R-N-I-N-G points, which are important for kids of both genders to understand.
Now, my imagination is still pretty substantial but I did still feel like there’s a part of this island that I couldn’t unlock because I’m an adult. I’d love to hear a child’s opinion of TBTBATB because I imagine that their imagination took them far further into this world than my creaky one could.
Definitely buy this book for the kids in your life if you want to deliver important lessons, packaged up as an adventure. If you don’t have any children, buy it anyway, get lost in the woods with this little boy for a few hours and see what you find out about yourself.