Book Review: Flamingo Boy
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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, February 2019, February 2021, May 2021, September 2022).
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.)
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 of the book had some problems. It 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.
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.)
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. So many needless distractions!
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, having the main story a flashback in a flashback.
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 soon after recounting her story 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. Are 9 year old girls reading the story supposed to draw inspiration from her account? Should they aspire to what Kezia aspired to... which appears to be nothing, except, perhaps, no more war? 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 very 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.
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. Poor show.
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. I'm left to conclude I can't even give this book away.
Addendum 3 – February 2021
I said in Addendum 1 that imprinting in a human doesn't happen in older birds. Just to show it's apparently not completely impossible, here's a cute story from Turkey about a swan who has formed a long-term relationship with a man who cared for it when it broke its wing 37 years ago. It's made the news because the bird is very old now for a swan, and because it's not usual for a bird to form such a lasting bond.
The review I linked to in the synopsis above is now nowhere to be seen. It seems to have been removed. Something dodgy is going on with the reviews.
I've made a few tweaks to my review above (but not my comments in Addendum 1). The mistakes in the book are serious enough that there should be a new edition prepared that fixes the problems I've detailed above. And includes the flapping flamingo animation.
Addendum 4 – May 2021
I've just watched the movie Storm Boy (the 2019 movie, not the original 1976 one). It's based on Colin Thiele's book of the same name – which I haven't read – and structured around a series of recollections from a grandfather to his granddaughter. I can honestly say that the movie's ending is as good as Flamingo Boy's ending is bad. There's a purpose to the story of young Michael and his pelican Mr Percival, including both the good and bad things that happen. The narrative in the present completes the story from the past, and there are multiple consequences of the past events that directly link the past with the present. The present is a result of the past.
Michael Morpurgo does not manage anything like that in Flamingo Boy, and the Storm Boy movie emphasises just how badly lacking Flamingo Boy's ending is. I've reduced my rating to 2 stars.
Addendum 5 – September 2022
A suggestion is that the book is simply a 50 year old man relating the life episode of his 18 year old self being told the story of a 50 year old woman recounting her 9 year old self bearing witness to the life and times of a 9 year old boy who was (and still is) non-verbal so couldn't tell the story himself. OK, fair call, but too many layers!
I still think the story smacks of having been rushed out. The story needed more preparation before going to print.
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