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Book Review: Flamingo Boy

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Flamingo Boy

Author: Michael Morpurgo.

Published: 8 March 2018 (which is a little strange because I ordered it on 7 March).

Read and reviewed: March 2018 (review updated April 2018 and again February 2019).

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

 

Synopsis

The tale is initially told from the point of view of Vincent Montague, a man in his mid 50s reminiscing of when he was an eighteen year old in 1982.

Vincent has just finished his school exams in England when he heads off to Camargue in southern France with the aim of finding where Vincent van Gogh painted some boats. (I looked up the painting after I had read the book. It's not what I'd call one of his more popular works.)

While in Camargue young Vincent falls seriously ill and is taken in by Lorenzo and Kezia, an autistic man and a Roma (gypsy) woman, 50 year old friends born on the same day, who have lived together on a small farm since World War II. After Vincent has recovered sufficiently, Kezia takes up the role of main story-teller, recounting her experiences during the war and the (let's face it) slightly magical abilities of Lorenzo, who even as a nine year old could calm injured wild animals almost instantly.

But war eventually rolled in to the Camargue in the form of a troop of Nazi soldiers and their surprisingly caring "Caporal" who introduces himself (page 159) as a husband, father and former teacher. (The website blurb says he was a sergeant and a former carpenter. As others have said, whoever wrote the blurb cannot have read the book. More on this contradiction below.)

 

Review

Warning – contains minor spoilers.

At the heart of Flamingo Boy is a really nice story – not an all-time great one, but one that reminds us that everyone has something to offer. It includes a taste of bullying and the consequences of war, and is at times quite moving, with a main thrust being the value of life-long friends. Overall it was a reasonably enjoyable read, but the extra layer of story telling wrapped around the heart wasn't as strong as it needed to be, and also had distracting oversights, a frustrating error, and an annoying lack of purpose to Vincent's extended stay in Camargue.

I bought the book because I was intrigued by the idea of an autistic boy playing a central character. In that respect I wasn't let down – Michael Morpurgo created a vivid and mostly believable character in Lorenzo, albeit one who doesn't seem to progress; age 50 he still acts and talks in exactly the same ways he did age 9. (That can easily be attributed to his isolation in a quiet corner of Camargue. With little outside influence there's little to cause change or growth.)

In many places the book lacks clarity regarding time, such as the amount of time Vincent takes to recover. The introductory chapters probably cause the most confusion. They are interesting and well written enough to sort of hold the reader's attention, although they jump around in time and it's not clear how old Vincent is at any particular point. Most of the lack of specific timings here and throughout the book don't ultimately matter much, but there are a couple of timing issues that would be very helpful to understand before reading.

  1. At the beginning of his account Vincent is studying for his sixth form exams (page 12). The English "sixth form" covers two years of schooling, with students generally 16 to 18 years old. That's not the case where I live, where sixth form is specifically only a single year (except for students "insufficiently motivated" to pass their exams the first time). Thus, Vincent was 18 when procrastinating with his studies.

    As written, Vincent's preamble just didn't make sense to me because it didn't seem he would be old enough to be eighteen by the time he got to France without an extra unmentioned year of schooling – in hindsight a case of using the same words but speaking a different language. It resulted in the preamble seeming detached from and unrelated to the rest of the story, instead of immediately preceeding it and locked in to the rest of the story (which it really does need to be but doesn't manage). Something so simple made a big difference to how the introduction and change of location worked, to the detriment of the effectiveness of the multiple layers of story-telling. The problem could have been avoided any number of ways, such as by simply making an early mention of his age.

  2. The letter from his grandparents mentions the date on which he turned one year old: 27 January 1964 (page 19). That should have been 1965.

    Because Vincent has already stated that his story took place in the summer of 1982 (page 10), him sitting sixth form exams suggested to this New Zealand reader that he would have been a couple of years away from heading to France, and being a definite nineteen when he was there. But in France his age of eighteen is mentioned multiple times (eg, Kezia page 48; Vincent himself page 283, showing he could easily mention it when he wanted to). Kezia clearly states her and Lorenzo's birthday of 28 May 1932 (page 49) and that they are the wrong side of 50 (page 48), which requires Vincent's stay to be in 1982 or later. It all points to Vincent being born in 1964, not turning one in that year. This error grated, and distracted from fully enjoying the book because things simply didn't add up. This simple error should have been caught in editing.

These are details that will likely not be very important to many people reading the story, but they screwed up the timeline for me, so what was happening simply didn't make complete sense. Now that I know those two things I'd possibly enjoy the book a little more... but I don't want to read it again. Ever.

As I mentioned, the passage of time during Vincent's recovery is not addressed in much concrete sense. Even an acknowledgement that Vincent had lost track of how long he had been there would have been an improvement. Doesn't he need to contact anyone who will be getting worried that he's been out of touch for what must have been weeks? Or has it only been a few days? Or is it months?

Another issue that doesn't seem to be going away (see the Addendum below) is that of the Caporal's rank. Caporal is French for corporal (or lance corporal, a rank below corporal) and he can speak French well, so in the book he is clearly not claiming a rank of sergeant (page 159). Then why would the website blurb call him a sergeant, a distinct (ie, different) rank? (Why is the rank not translated into English? Probably just to explain Lorenzo's name for him, or maybe it's an attempt to give the story a patina of authenticity by including the occasional "foreign" word.)

  • As a corporal the soldier seems to wield an unusual amount of authority, and there's only a single mention of anyone present of higher rank, an officer who goes into the town hall (page 92). While the officer was inside, there were "trucks full" of German soldiers (page 91) the Caporal was in charge of, who were numerous enough to line up in ranks in the town square. But is that really a problem?
  • In the German army both the corporal and sergeant ranks are non-commissioned officers according to this page. According to Wikipedia, Sergeant: "In modern-day usage within the German Bundeswehr [army] the rank of sergeant is known as Unteroffizier, [but] historically it was the German army rank of corporal." That's the opposite of what we need to say the Caporal was actually a sergeant.
  • It's clarified and expanded in Unteroffizier: "Historically the Unteroffizier rank was considered a corporal and thus similar in duties to a British Army corporal. In peacetime an Unteroffizier was a career soldier who trained conscripts or led squads and platoons." In the German army a squad, or Gruppe, is just 8 to 12 soldiers, and would be led by a corporal or lower ranked sergeant. A platoon, or Zug, is 4 to 6 headquarters men and 3 squads, or about 40 men total. It's probable that it was a Zug which arrived in the town.
  • Leading more men doesn't mean he could not have been a corporal, especially with his teaching experience, and experience on the Russian front. He may simply have been the highest ranked soldier who didn't go into the town hall. And consider – by the time of the Normandy landings, German soldiers were an average six years older than the Allies soldiers because so many of the younger ones had been killed off.

I have not been able to find anything to indicate he was a sergeant. All I can deduce is that the official website blurb is just as mistaken about his rank as it is about him being a carpenter. The "Is he? Isn't he?" was another needless distraction while reading.

There's also something lacking in terms of purpose. What point does Vincent's extra layer of story telling serve? It's an unusual way to tell a story.

  • But not so unusual for Michael Morpurgo. He has written other books which use a similar story-in-a-story approach.

  • The simplest explanation is it was just an easy way to pad out the story a bit, as does the large print and wide line spacing. Indeed, my first impression was the book is unnecessarily large; there could easily have been more on each page without even reducing the font size. The book would be really quite thin if the two and a bit extra chapters had not been included, and normal text presentation used.

    (On the subject of the book itself, there was a sadly missed opportunity in not making those flamingo pictures in the top right corner of some pages animated so the flamingos appear to fly as the pages are flicked through. That would have made the book somewhat special regardless of the quality of the story, and been an awesome interactive way to connect the reader to Lorenzo's flamingos. Ah well.)

  • Bracketing the story provides a natural way to introduce the reader to Camargue, then Lorenzo and Kezia, the main characters in the "actual" story, and strengthen the reader's interaction with Camargue and with the carousel.

  • It can be used to provide pacing control and narrative control, and is a clever way of managing cliff hangers. Like Vincent, the reader will likely find the story captivating, and we want it to continue when Kezia takes a break, especially if something exciting was happening. In the breaks Kezia has the option of answering questions that Vincent – and the reader – are bursting to ask, and when Kezia takes up the story again she can fill in important backstory before getting back to the cliffhanger.

  • It offers an easy way to extend and wrap up Kezia's story. But why not just have Kezia relating the story herself? She would have made a great primary narrator. It also makes me wonder why don't we find out what happens to her? Is she still alive now and in her mid 80s? Unlikely. Did she and Lorenzo die soon after Vincent arrived and leave him the farm? Finishing the book with her dying would possibly be a bit rough for some of the younger readers, but a movie version would probably finish with Vincent laying flowers on her grave, thereby giving a solid reminder that she was a real person he had met. Instead, she and Lorenzo – the main characters in the main story – just faded out with no definite ending.

  • It gives a way to apply Kezia's story to someone's life to make a permanent change – someone like Vincent... except it didn't. Vincent doesn't so much as at hint any way in which his life has been changed by listening to the story. For all we know it was just entertainment to him while he recovered. That's very unsatisfying.

What about Vincent himself, what purpose does he serve? He gives the reader an access connection to Kezia, but one that's arguably not actually needed. What else does he do? It doesn't seem likely that the book is written for older teenagers. The eighteen year old Vincent doesn't actually do enough in the story – or apparently with his life – to strongly identify with him, and it's very unclear what really motivates him.

At the end of his story Vincent has apparently found somewhere he feels he belonged, but what exactly was the point of him staying in Camargue? He introduced himself as someone who always wanted to know what was around the corner, but when he got around the first corner he gave up on that and stayed put. Years later, he hasn't done anything except find "friendship, a home too, and much more besides" – which he doesn't specify (page 288). No wife and family? Surely that would be worth mentioning? Since he wrote a fine tale of his teen experience, how about he became even a mediocre travel writer, or if staying put, a wildlife correspondent and naturalist? Or did he wait so long to write it because he couldn't write well and didn't end up passing those exams? In that case how about turning the farm into a nature retreat for school children (something similar to the author's farms for city children)? Did Kezia die early and he decided to stay to cook sausages for the amazing, intriguing Lorenzo? Anything!

Without a clearer explanation of what Vincent found that was so wonderful, why exactly he wanted to stay, and what he did in the intervening decades it leaves a big something wanting. As it is, without him getting any sort of tertiary education (ornithology would have been a great way to really come full circle) it sounds more like he gave up and dropped out. Maybe the fever had a permanent effect on his brain. The book needs just one solid reason for him staying! Friends and a home can be found anywhere. Why Camargue in particular? A single sentence could have done it.

But if it's too hard for young readers to identify with either an 18 year old Vincent or Vincent in his 50s, is it any easier to identify with a young autistic boy and a girl who at times seems to primarily exist to relate they boy's story for him because he's not able to tell it himself? Being introduced to Kezia as a 50 year old woman probably makes it more difficult to relate to Kezia as a girl. As an adult, why did Kezia stay? When and why did her life mission become caring for Lorenzo? What motivated her?

This book was sufficiently frustrating that I'd probably decline to read more of Michael Morpurgo's work even if I didn't have anything else to do, and this one has certainly put me off ever buying another of his books. The editing should have caught simple errors and inconsistencies, and I think it's clear the author should, like Vincent, have taken more care with his preparation.

 

Repeated plot points

Some features of this story are also found in other works by Michael Morpurgo.

  • A Medal for Leroy has the protagonist breaking a photo and finding a pad of paper containing a long letter from a relative.

  • I Believe in Unicorns (and probably others) has someone recounting something that happened when he/she was much younger.

  • The Butterfly Lion and An Eagle in the Snow (and probably others) use a similar story-in-a-story approach.

  • Like the carousel in this story, I Believe in Unicorns features a wooden unicorn as a symbol of hope which is saved from total destruction.

  • Wars and horses are common themes in his books. War Horse combines both.

 

Summary

  • The book is unnecessarily large; there could easily have been more on each page without even reducing the font size.

  • The flamingo pictures at the top right corner of some pages should have been on all pages and been animated to show them flying when the pages are flicked through.

  • Sixth form in England is two years of schooling, and Vincent was 18 when he was getting distracted from studying.

  • His grandparents' letter should have been dated 1965.

  • The Caporal possibly had more responsibility at times than a corporal normally does but was not a sergeant or a carpenter.

  • Vincent desperately needed to provide clearer motivation for staying in Carmargue, and a better idea of what he's done in the decades since arriving. He's the person "actually" telling the story, but his story doesn't go anywhere! He gets to Camargue then... does nothing more. This is possibly the main problem with the story as a whole.

  • It's a strange mix of very good and frustrating – a really nice central story but ultimately unsatisfying. With the mistakes and lack of clarity for the passage of time it's for feelers, not thinkers. It takes a particular sort of reader to conclude this is one of the most brilliant, profound books they've ever read (which some readers have).

 

Addendum 1 – April 2018

New Zealand children's author David Hill has written an amazing review of Flamingo Boy which appeared in The NZ Herald on Saturday 21 April 2018 (Weekend page 17, in a collection of reviews of ANZAC related books). David Hill is clearly a good writer – he writes an excellent review! – but he doesn't quite hit the mark with some of his review's assertions.

He repeats the claim, in passing, that the Caporal is a sergeant. I don't know where he gets this from (other than the mistaken website blurb). I've expanded my notes on this in my review above.

Michael Morpurgo introduced Lorenzo's animal calming ability in a very smooth way, so that the reader is unlikely to have trouble suspending a small amount of disbelief in order to proceed with and enjoy the story, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a very unnatural ability; I called it "slightly magical" in my review above. A bigger problem, though, is that birds will imprint on humans only if the bird is young enough (hatchlings). That doesn't happen with older birds. The way the partially healed flamingo follows Lorenzo around thus strikes me as being extremely unnatural behaviour. David Hill's assertion that "Characters chime true, no matter how many legs they move on" does not quite chime true itself.

It's interesting that like Michael Morpurgo, David Hill has taken to writing stories set during wars. He explains it's easier than writing believeable slang as used by modern youth and including technology into the stories, and says children have BS detectors: "They pick up on the false notes". I certainly picked up on lots in Flamingo Boy (although I admit I'm just a tad older than the average child). As David Hill says in his review's closing line, it's "A book that stays with you days after you close it." I certainly found that true, but for the wrong reasons.

The email I sent to the Morpurgo website pointing out some of the errors has gone unanswered.

 

Addendum 2 – February 2019

My 14 year old niece mentioned she doesn't like Michael Morpurgo stories and refuses to read any more, including this one.


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