I can't remember how I came to stumble upon The Burying Beetle. It was first published in 2005 and I missed it completely at the time. This may have been because it predated my current interest in YA fiction, or perhaps it did not receive a great deal of publicity, being published by Luath Press, one of the smaller publishers.
But oh boy - am I glad I found it. And not just The Burying Beetle but its two sequels, The Bower Bird and Inchworm, at least one of which I plan to review on here soon.
The protagonist is Gussie Stevens, aged twelve. Her story opens on August 11th, 1999, which, you may or may not remember, was the date of the total eclipse of the sun, viewable in totality from Cornwall. The eclipse is significant to Gussie, partly because it happens on her twelfth birthday but also for reasons far deeper, all connected with her recent move to St Ives with her mother and her growing interest in the bird, animal and human life of the area.
Gussie is a contemplative girl - a keen reader and observer. This is forced upon her to some extent by her condition - she can't get around very much. The older and bigger she gets, the more her heart has to struggle. When she was young, she could run and jump, but now it's difficult to walk very far without getting out of breath and exhausted, owing to her medical condition, pulmonary atresia, which means that she lacks a pulmonary artery and her blood is receiving a lot less oxygen than it needs.
The condition is fatal for some, but Gussie has, if I've understood her correctly, compensating defects in her circulatory system which mean that her blood does get some oxygen, allowing her to live a rich and interesting, if somewhat restricted, life. Gussie's observations of her three cats, as well as the local gulls, beetles, mice, dolphins, seals and humans, made me smile as well as teaching me a lot. Her attitude towards her illness is never self-pitying - she deals with it in a matter-of-fact way which is not only inspiring but deeply moving at times. Her relationship with her mother is drawn finely and with conviction. You can't help loving both of them, and the cats and other creatures too (especially the grouchy adolescent gull who refuses to leave home!).
Gussie can't go to school because of the risk of picking up infections. She's lonely, of course, and she misses her London life, but soon she starts to make friends with a number of local residents and discoveres that her father (still living in London, now with The Lovely Eloise) has relatives in the town. Slowly, St Ives becomes home, and Gussie shares with us her observations of the seashore in all its moods. She's not afraid to tell us about the anger and jealousy she feels at times, and about her grief over the loss of her grandparents. Altogether, this is a profound, thoughtful and convincing book. But don't go away with the impression that it's heavy and sad, because it's not. Gussie has a tremendous love of life and is determined to make the most of however much (or little) of it she has left.
I think there is something for every age here. Ann Kelley says she does not write for children but for readers, and that shows through every page. She also tells us that Gussie's story is partly based on that of her own son, who also had pulmonary atresia. That helps explain why she gets it all (as far as I can tell) so 'right'. But she is a fine writer, too, and her love of Cornwall and its wildlife brings the story alive.
Highly recommended, for any reader of 10+.
Title: The Burying Beetle
Author: Ann Kelley
First published: 2005
Publisher: Luath Press
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