Review: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Skippy Dies holds the world of Seabrook – an Irish, Catholic boy’s school. Paul Murray populates this world with a variety of lifelike characters, including boys and teachers, and tells the interweaving stories through them. This is a hearty novel about people. At times it is funny, at other times it is sad but never in a depressing way – it will make you laugh but it will not make you cry.

The real triumph of Skippy is Murray’s absence in the novel. Although it is written in third limited throughout, there is no sense of a narrator or an author. This is a novel told solely through the characters themselves. The voices Murray creates for each one is unique and believable. You never question them and therefore, you never question their world.

The characters themselves are completely believable. You empathise with them and you care about them, although, as with real people, this is true of some more than others. They are multi-dimensional and have realistic reactions to realistic situations, particularly death and loss. There is no straightforward response to grief. Nor do you see everybody’s side to the story – some characters remain as much a mystery to you as to the characters involved with them.

There is no use of escapism in the plot itself. However, like real people, the characters have fantasies and imaginations. These vary from a day-to-day projection of what people hope or even expect to happen to drug-induced nightmarish hallucinations; from past to future; from science to folklore. In fact, through the individual characters, whole new worlds seep into the novel: WW2 through Howard; M Theory through Ruprecht; drug culture through Carl.

Plot is very much secondary in this novel. For me, this is what gives it its charm. This is not a thrilling page turner. It’s not so much that nothing happens, in fact quite a lot does happen. It’s more that it’s dealt with in a very undramatic manner. A lot of the big scenes in terms of plot are not portrayed directly. They are either from an unexpected point of view or talked about after the event. Often, Murray uses a combination of these two: in a particular scene, you’ll want to know what one particular character is thinking, how he/she feels about it but you’ll be seeing it through someone else’s eyes, then you’ll get the other character’s thoughts on it from after it has occurred. You almost work out what has happened and what it means to the characters rather than living through it.

I suppose if I had to find fault with this novel, I would say that it’s not revolutionary or life-changing. Nor does it hook you in the way that more plot-driven books do. However, it’s characters do hook you in a much more subtle way. This isn’t something that’s never been done before but does that make it less of a success? Does every book have to be ground-breaking or cathartic? To be truly great, I suppose it does. When you finish a truly great book, it is with that sigh of relief and deep sadness that the journey is over. You feel cleansed and changed, in a way. Skippy Dies did not do this for me. I did feel sad that it was over but, as with the hook, the effect was much more subtle.

Skippy Dies has a lot of heart without being melodramatic at all. That subtle soul is a rare quality in books. It’s not unique, though. So is Skippy Dies a great book, in the true sense of the word? No but it is very very good and for that reason, I recommend that you read it. So, naturally, here’s a link. Enjoy.

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