Book review: A Song for Ella Grey, David Almond

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered, although it (the book, not the publisher) did give me a vicious paper cut.

Just when I think we’re done with retellings, another one gleefully crops up, and I’m not really complaining — all stories have been told already and will be told again, and I love those that frankly acknowledge and explore their origins. To my eye, the definitive Orpheus retelling is of course All Our Pretty Songsbecause Sarah McCarry lives in my heart, stores her records there, and sometimes hosts parties filled with slouchy intellectuals on its couches. However, A Song for Ella Grey is a fascinating retelling in its own right, even if Almond uses the source material a tad more literally than McCarry does — but there’s nothing wrong with a very straight retelling.

Before I plunge into the twists and turns of Ella Grey, be advised that if you aren’t familiar with some of the myths surrounding Orpheus, you might find my review a bit of a spoiler. You might not particularly object to that, but I thought you ought to know. And if you are familiar with Orpheus, you might still want to hold off and read the book for yourself to see how it explores the legend and plays with it before coming back to my review.

Now that everyone’s been warned, we can get on to business, shall we?

A Song for Ella Grey is set in Northeast England, primarily upon the shorelines of Northumberland. It’s a stark, windswept, cold, chilly landscape, a far cry from the azure waters and shimmering sun of the Mediterranean, something the characters themselves remark upon when they romanticise the Continent and talk about what they’d like to do on the holidays before ultimately decamping to the beaches of their home nation, knowing that their travel budget doesn’t extend much further than that. That landscape, though, makes for a really unique and interesting setting, something I enjoyed as a play on the traditional Orpheus myth — what happens when you take an ancient story out of its historic environment and place it somewhere new?

There are a couple of things about the structure and storytelling of A Song for Ella Grey that really intrigue me. Our narrator Claire is put in the position of telling the story of her best friend (and lover) Ella — a girl sucked up into the sound and furor of the mysterious Orpheus, who shows up one day to captivate their group of slightly wild, feral friends with his intensely beautiful and compelling music. Ella is gone now, though, and it’s up to Claire to relate the series of events that led to Ella’s death and disappearance — and Orpheus’ death at the hands of a group of vicious women who tear him to shreds where the land meets the waves.

Ella and Claire are schoolgirls with a complicated relationship, bound up in a group of friends that loves music, and dance, and being wild and furious and a little spinny and slightly out of control. Claire’s prose is stark and elegant, but it carries a hint of deep romanticism as she tells the story, illustrating that she was clearly besotted with Ella and always would be. The slang (and class differences) of the region are seamlessly and elegantly integrated into the text, drawing the reader into the world of the characters without becoming distracting and overwrought, and even when characters are engaging in the basest of crudery, there’s a pure, soaring nature to the storytelling that reminds me of Orpheus’ own music, which isn’t just about beauty but also sharp, cruel wildness sometimes as well.

Claire’s pain as Ella meets Orpheus and becomes more and more wrapped up in him is evident, and it’s especially sharp and pulling when her friend announces that she plans to marry him and disappear into the world, traveling, playing music, and seeing what there is to see. It’s not the dream that Claire had in mind, and she’s bitter and uncertain even as she leads Ella down the aisle at an improvised, informal wedding that mimics the spirits of the parties and attendees alike — Ella barefoot on the shoreline, girls dressed in cardboard tiaras and combat boots. Just hours later, Ella is dead, bitten by the adders that infest the dunes, and after chasing her across the known world, Orpheus plunges into the world of death to find her.

Here’s where the narrative structure gets really interesting: Ella takes on the persona of Orpheus to tell this part of the story, explaining that he told it to her and she has an obligation to pass it on as well. It’s in the form of Ella-as-Orpheus that we venture into the underworld and see the fatal moment when Orpheus, so close to the boundaries of life, turns to look at Ella, thus ensuring that she will be trapped in death forever. It’s a very intimate and personal moment, and it was an incredibly smart storytelling decision that put us into the heart of his desperation — explaining, to some degree, why he doesn’t fight harder when he’s torn apart just pages later.

The myth itself is filled with wild, mysterious, slightly feral people — maenads and lovers and musicians and drinkers — and the text really captures this, even as people are drinking cheap booze from corner stores and sleeping in shoddy tents under heavy mist instead of wine on the warm beaches of Greece. A Song for Ella Grey pulls at and distills the myth for a different generation of readers, and it does so in a way that’s deeply intriguing. I look forward to reading it again, as I suspect I’ll be deriving more from it — just as I do every time I read various classical iterations of the Orpheus myth.