Bleak but terrific debut

The Godless Boys
Naomi Wood
Picador; £12.99 Kindle £6.80

SARAH WICKS, heroine of this first novel from a young American writer living in London, was always told her mother had run off with another man.

It is a lie she lives with for 10 years until she discovers her mother is not an adulterer but a criminal, deported to a remote, inhospitable island in the North Sea.

Set in a richly imagined, alternate 1986, The Godless Boys tells the story of a country torn apart by the conflict between religious belief and violent secularism. In Wood’s England, waves of church burnings have led to the expulsion of the unbelievers while the clergy control the mainland, starving the exiles of all but the barest necessities for survival.

Stowing away on a supply boat, Sarah arrives on the island to discover it is a far more dangerous place than she imagined. Here religion is outlawed. Possession of a bible is grounds for a severe beating, or worse.

It is a fearful, threadbare community and, to an extent, the mystery at the heart of The Godless Boys — the search for Sarah’s mother — takes a backseat to the journey of the protagonists through this unusual world. Seeing it through Sarah’s eyes is one thing, but seeing it from the inside, particularly from the complex, conflicted perspective of island native Nathaniel Malraux, is where the novel really shines.

Nathaniel is leader of one of those skinhead gangs in tight trousers and military jackets which are so evocative of Thatcher’s Britain. His posse evokes more than a touch of A Clockwork Orange, especially in the slangy argot spoken by the boys, however Wood’s droogs are more proactive than those of Burgess, their sole concern is rooting out signs of faith and punishing any believers they discover: “You’ve got to see how easy it is for faith to hijack your head,” Nathaniel says, before bludgeoning one of his fellow islanders.

This band of half-wild boys is thrown into disarray by Sarah’s appearance. As Nathaniel begins to fall in love with her, others are convinced that she must be made an example of.

Throughout the novel, Wood’s grasp on her characters is strong and their voices convincing. The notion of secular terrorism is intriguing, and one which is dealt with plausibly by the author. Such a complex political and social background, the potential millstone around the neck of any alternate history, is something Woods has skilfully woven into the larger dramatic context of the narrative itself, a mix of incident, commentary and dialogue which allows her to avoid any ungainly or plot-stopping summary of information.

A readable and engaging debut, The Godless Boys marks Naomi Woods as a writer of talent and promise.


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