Mal Peet’s swansong Beck is a difficult, but worthwhile tale of struggle [Review]

John Millen |

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By Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

Published by Walker Books

ISBN 978 1 4063 3112 7

The final novel from award-winning British author Mal Peet is a gigantic coming-of-age story with all the unique power of this popular writer’s best work. Peet died of cancer in March 2015 leaving an unfinished novel behind. His great friend and fellow

YA novelist Meg Rosoff took up the challenge of competing Beck, adding a layer of sadness to a novel already filled with tragedy. But this story is also packed with hope and life-affirming spirit; and due credit to Rosoff, you can’t tell where Peet ends and she begins.

Peet’s YA novels are known for an uncompromising approach to sometimes difficult themes. Beck is an unflinching and angry tale of the struggles a mixed-race orphan boy faces as he grows up in a foreign land.

The tale of Ignatius Beck begins in the English port of Liverpool in 1907. He doesn’t know his father, a black soldier his poverty-stricken white mother had a very short relationship with; she then dies when he is 11 years old, and Ignatius is swept off the streets into a local orphanage. Then comes his “lucky” break. He is bundled onto a boat which crosses the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, where he will be given a new start in life. Because he is the only boy of colour amongst all those on the ship, he is nicknamed Chocolat.

It might be obvious from the start that Beck is going to be a hard read in places. These are strong themes, and Peet did not shy away from the grimness and controversy of his stories. When Ignatius arrives at the Christian Brothers home in Canada, he is abused, scenes which make for very difficult reading.

He is eventually sent to work on a farm, where things go from bad to worse. It is only after he escapes that the adventure really begins. Half-starved, he falls in with a gang of criminals, flees into Native Canadian territory, and ends with a beautiful half-native woman who might be Ignatius’ unexpected saviour.

Peet softens Ignatius’ story as it draws to a close, and Beck does end with a hopeful and inspiring conclusion. This is not a spoiler: it is what any sensitive reader would want, and as writers Peet and Rosoff are aware of their responsibilities to their readers. There has to be some light somewhere.

The world of Young Adult fiction has lost a gifted and original writer in Peet. His swansong is the story of one boy’s struggles, and it’s a fitting final work from one of the most outstanding writers of his generation.

Contains adult themes and scenes that younger teen readers may find distressing.

John Millen can be contacted on [email protected]