For strong readers with inquiring minds, British author Chloe Daykin has created a unique novel that incorporates several themes: family stress, where mom has an undiagnosed illness (embarrassing because it cannot be explained); the bullying of Billy, who is introspective and a loner; the friendship of a new boy who understands him; plus, the compelling lure of a talking fish.
This novel is an example of Magic Realism focussing on “ordinary people going about the humdrum activities of daily life. Everything is normal—except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility, whether it be magic or fate or a physical connection with the earth and the creatures that inhabit it, but always in a way that celebrates the mundane”.
Billy is a boy interested in all things to do with nature; Billy follows the Sir David Attenborough science programs (Planet Earth: CBC series) religiously and revisits Attenborough’s observations about the planet in his thoughts and dreams. The tidbits of Attenborough philosophy help him cope with the problems in his life, as does his passion for swimming in the ocean, usually before school starts. Hence his nickname – Fish Boy. Billy is misunderstood and bullied by his classmates until a new boy, Patrick, arrives who understands and supports his passions.
The magic comes during one of Billy’s swims when he encounters a mackerel that talks and gives him the ability to breathe under water. He makes repeated dives to communicate, eventually spending longer periods in the sea and being enticed to stay with the school of fish. When Patrick, who cannot swim, intervenes to find Billy, Billy has choices to make.
Spaced throughout the text, there are chapters that recount several mysterious aircraft disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, adding to the elements of magic and the unexplained.
All characters are well-developed, with a strong sense of voice. Twelve-year old Billy has an especially strong voice, portrayed through his colloquial speech, dialogue with others, and his introspection.
All chapters are short, with different text styles and font size for Billy’s interactions with the fish. Ethereal, black and white, random illustrations feature Billy and his fish encounters in a way that captures the magic and “other-worldness” of the undersea setting. The book’s magic is grounded in the universal themes of belonging, friendship, and family.