Glenda Millard's new novel is an outstanding piece of classy fiction whether you read it aged nine or 99. It is one of those rare, original books, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time or How I Live Now, which is impossible to label or define for a particular readership.
A Small Free Kiss in the Dark is certainly not the romantic slice of chick-lit which the title might imply. It's a beautifully written story of how a small group of outsiders struggle to survive in the face of great odds. There is enough action and plot here to keep any reader furiously turning the pages, and there is tonnes more besides. A reader's age and gender don't come into the frame with a novel like this.
Twelve-year old Skip lives on the streets, beneath the notice of society. He once had a home, and a mother and father, but all that is in the boy's past and doesn't matter now. He belongs to no one. Millard doesn't burden Skip with a back-story to tell us why he is where he is. The present is the present, and the boy has to get on with his life; there's no time for looking back.
Skip's voice, situation and character pull the reader right into the novel from the first page. He has suffered hard times, but he still looks at life with enthusiasm. He is an artist who loves looking at the light and colour in classic paintings whenever he gets the chance. He is fascinated with what the French artist Monet could do with colour, and this obsession gets him through the darkness of his own world.
Whenever he gets the chance, Skip loves drawing with coloured chalk on the pavements of the city where he lives. His artwork stops adults in their tracks, but Skip knows better than to get carried away by what people say about his talent. His only friend is a homeless man called Billy. The two of them form an unlikely alliance and look out for each other when things get tough.
But suddenly, life changes dramatically for the homeless boy and his companion.
Out of nowhere, the city is plunged into war and becomes a battle zone. Again, Millard offers no explanation for this sudden change of events, and none is necessary. Billy and Skip come across Max, a six-year old boy they find in the city's ruins. The trio leave the city and end up in an abandoned fairground where they are joined by Tia, a young dancer, and her baby. As an ill-assorted group, they must search for food and find ways to get through the war as best they can.
Throughout A Small Free Kiss in the Dark, Millard focuses on character, relationships, human hope and despair. She holds a tight rein on a plot that never strays away from the central characters. Impressionable readers - teens and adults - will engage with Skip and the events of the plot, and finish up deeply affected by the story.
It's almost impossible to read this book without it touching your very soul. This is one of the most gripping and emotionally involving reads of the year so far.