A Song for Ella Grey

This week’s review is a tough one for me. To be honest, it was supposed to come out last week, but I didn’t manage to finish the book in time. I actually thought I would never finish it at all!

If you know me, you know that it pains me to not finish a book I started. It’s a dramatic gesture, only reserved for those books I just cannot stand. This was pretty much one of them. So let’s dive right into A Song for Ella Grey, by David Almond.

This book is a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce. A quick refresher: Orpheus is a master musician, who can charm every living creature with his song. He marries the lovely Euridyce, who gets bitten by a snake and dies pretty much immediately. Heartbroken, Orpheus goes down to Hades and persuades him via song to take Euridyce back to the living. There is one condition: Orpheus cannot look back at Euridyce whilst on their journey back up, or she’ll be dead forever. Of course he does, and it’s tragedy all around.

This story is essentially the same, but Eurydice is now called Ella Grey, and the story is told by Claire, Ella’s obsessive best friend. (As Ella is Euridyce I’ll just go ahead and call her Elladyce, because I like to think I’m funny.) It’s set in modern(ish) time England, so there’s some interesting accents and lots of partying.

And that’s it, that’s the story. As it is pretty much the same as the original myth, I will spend most of this review talking about style and narrative strategies. Don’t worry, it won’t be dry!

He smelt his fingers. A beetle was crawling on them. He breathed on it and let it crawl to the earth.

A blackbird sang. He turned his face to it and smiled, and sang quickly back in answer.

‘I found nothing,’ he said, ‘I thought I would have to kill myself.’

A sudden flock of pigeons swooped over our heads. He made a noise of feathers with his breath and tongue. He made more birdsong and more birds came. He made a sound of water and two salmon leapt.

‘Then I knew I had to come back here,’ he said.

He blew an echo of the breeze. And the breeze blew warm. The clouds were opening, preparing for an astounding dusk, and twin beams of brilliant light shone down through them onto the city.

‘I knew I’d have to start from here,’ he said. ‘Where it all started.’

All emphases mine to highlight the word repetition.

It’s kind of bad to have so much repetition in just one page. Sometimes, you can’t avoid having to use the same words. This is not the case here. Even worse is that you could just skip this page all together. This is the part after Elladyce died and Orpheus and Claire are looking for the entrance to Death/Hades. It should carry at least some form of suspense or drama, and as the reader has been battered to death with how whimsically magical Orpheus is, all that these descriptions mount up to is breaking the flow of the narrative. This happens throughout the entire novel, and I understand why: the author wanted to make it feel surreal, and flow like a dream. Unfortunately, in this case this came at the expense of an enjoyable read.

It’s a bit painful to read this novel. I like the original myth, and I love modern retellings of classic tales. The idea for this text was great, and having the story be told by an outsider (who is also totally in love with Elladyce) was very clever as it could shift the focus from Romeo and Juliet style lovey love love to a story about a different kind of loss. However, making Claire be in love with Elladyce means we have yet another YA love triangle – seriously, why couldn’t it just have been about friendship? Have we learnt nothing from Daria? – and the writing makes it really hard to get through this book at all. For some reason, for instance, everyone pretty much always refers to Elladyce by her full name. The dialogue in general is very stiff and unnatural. Here, for instance, you have two overbearing, heartbroken parents confronting Claire and her parents about the death of their beloved child:

‘Ha! And you,’ said Mr Grey, baring his teeth at me now. ‘What did you do to protect her? What did you do, oh best of friends?’

‘It was an accident,’ I answered. ‘It was a chance in a million. It was the snakes.’

‘It was no accident,’ said Mrs Grey. ‘It was not the snakes. It was you and you and you, and the rest of the stupid motley crew. You are the ones who caused the death of Ella Grey.’

The retelling strategies in this novel are also a bit confusing: choosing the name Orpheus for the same character from the myth makes it obvious what the story will be, but why change Euridyce to Ella? Or Hades to the too-vague Death? Calling Orpheus by that name makes it impossible to see him as a part of the modern setting, which is probably what the author went for. It also makes it impossible to see him as a part of Elladyce, no matter how much the author tries to paint her as something that is not a part of this world.

I feel sad about this book. The idea was so great, and it was clear that the author knew what he was doing. He just didn’t manage to pull it off.

As I said above, I struggled finishing this book. I found myself skipping sentences, paragraphs, almost even pages. To keep myself awake and going, I decided to match this novel to a tea that maybe superficially makes no sense – but bare with me here.

This story’s tone is fairytale-esque and dreamy – and confused. There’s a lot of talk about beaches, parties, divine music, young and obsessive love and heart breaking death. I would therefore recommend a tea which is also light, slightly floral, and elegant in tones. However, the only way I could keep going was through dissonance. I had to enjoy at least something from this experience, and the only way to do that was to enjoy the tea. Because of this, I decided on Yumchaa‘s Chilli Chilli Bang Bang. Described on their website as something to drink when “you need a superhero side kick” it seemed appropriate. It’s a wonderful infusion of cinnamon, ginger, red thistle, sweet red pepper corns, and a Rooibos base. The Rooibos does have that light and elegant nature to match the dreaminess, and the rest is very healthy for you. And to keep you awake, it’s got a slight punch of chilli!

A Song for Ella Grey Chilli Chilli Bang Bang

So if you feel like reading about Orpheus and Euridyce, do so – the myth is a classic for a reason. But maybe skip this book and just have the tea instead.

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