Ostrich by Matt Greene
by Amy Pirt
I can tell my parents are unhappy by the way they smile at waiters. In that small act of ingratiation I can see the custody battle to come. It won’t be fought in the courtroom but in HMV and Game. Stocks in Nintendo will soar as my affections are auctioned off to the highest bidder. My teeth will rot.
I picked up this book because of its wonderful cover: a gorgeously retro black and white camera, resplendent in a sea of orange. Yet the camera’s appeal is not merely aesthetic: not only does one of the main characters have a darkroom, but this camera image also serves to remind us that we only ever get a snapshot into the psyche of others.
Twelve year old Alex has problems. His parents hate each other and his hamster Jaws 2 is acting out of character. Oh, and he’s just had major brain surgery. Not quite your average adolescent, then.
What I liked the most about Ostrich was that there was no clichéd terrible sense of foreboding (sorry, a cliché in itself) with regards to Alex’s predicament. Instead, we see him traversing the usual teenage routes of conspiracy theories, re Jaws 2’s behaviour, with his new ‘girl friend’, Chloe, playing Spin the Bottle and tricking younger kids on the school bus. Furthermore, Greene gives us a History Boys-style reasoned debate about why there is no future, and this is discussed in the context of language, rather than Alex’s illness:
Then she took out some chalk and wrote the words I’M THERE on the blackboard.
‘Does that make sense to you?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Because I’ve heard people say it.’
‘But it shouldn’t make sense though, should it? Not if you think about it. Are you thinking about it?
‘Yes,’ I said. And then I started to think about it.
‘What tense is the verb?’ asked Miss Farthingdale.
‘And what does the present tense mean?’
‘Exactly,’ she smiled. ‘And how could I be there now?’
Alex became a bit like spending a month surrounded by your family: you veer between loving them and wanting them to go away. Greene is a genius, but sometimes, it felt like being entertained by a stand up: Alex’s cleverness is constant and occasionally irksome. But for the most part, I found it endearing, particularly when he talks about his French class alter ego, Marcel, and the limitations to his life:
(In many ways my life is so much simpler in French. I don’t get headaches or déjà vu in French because I don ‘t know the words for them. Moreover I don’t worry about my parents’ marriage or my own mortality or why I haven’t had a wet dream because these are emotions I am not able to express. Sometimes I’m jealous of Marcel. I think that if I moved to France I’d be a completely different person. (For one thing I’d agree with people a lot more and for another I’d spend much more time in libraries and swimming pools.)
Deliberately, I imagine, the novel veers between the present and the past (but not the future, of course), and this switching can be confusing for the reader. All in all, however, this is a brilliant début novel which deserves to be noticed.