New Welsh Review
Fiona Orbell on The Nearest Faraway Place
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Fiona Orbell reviews The Nearest Faraway Place by Hayley Long, published by Hot Key Books. Audio recording, edit & photography: Aled John. Producer: Yalan Bao. Senior Producer: Gwen Davies.
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Fiona Orbell reviews The Nearest Faraway Place by the Costa-nominated YA author Hayley Long from New Welsh Review on Vimeo.
Fiona Orbell reviews The Nearest Faraway Place by Hayley Long, published by Hot Key Books
The Nearest Far Away Place is a compelling and poignant novel for teens about brotherly love and grief. Hayley Long skilfully describes the aftermath of a horrific accident which orphans two brothers, Griff and Dylan, using both tenderness and humour to offset the awful sadness of their tragic circumstances.
The story is told in the first person by Dylan, which allows us to get right inside the head of a grief-stricken, but mature and objective, teenager: ‘Statistically, there’d have been more chance of us being set upon by sharks or flattened by falling coconuts.’ The action begins on a motorway in New York on Griff’s thirteenth birthday, but throughout the book there are flashbacks to their peripatetic childhood recalled by Dylan: ‘Me and my brother Griff grew up living out of suitcases… We had passports filled with border stamps and Coke cans filled with foreign coins.’ Their parents moved them from London to Munich to Shanghai to Barcelona and finally Brooklyn, New York City, where the tragedy strikes; they finally end up in Aberystwyth.
The English author Hayley Long studied at Aberystwyth University, and her experience of living there helps bring the town alive in the book. Long began to write fiction whilst living in Wales and has written the series of teen fiction books Lottie Biggs (set in Cardiff) which have been translated into several languages. Moreover, many of her books have either won or been shortlisted for awards (in particular, several Costa children’s book prize nominations). In addition, her experience as an English teacher has given her valuable insight into the language and behaviour of teenagers.
Long is adept at portraying family relationships with convincing dialogue. There is the usual squabbling between siblings in the back seat of their car on a long hot journey as they return home from holiday. Dylan says: ‘Dad, will you please turn the air con up?It’s like a sauna in here and it’s turning Griff into a total dick.’ Plus, there are some amusing exchanges between father and son exposing the generation gap (this struck a note with me). Dad says:
‘We’ve enjoyed listening to that fantastic tune on your computer game. It hasn’t bugged the bejeezus out of me at all.’
‘It’s Temple Run 2,’ said Griff. ‘And it’s not a computer game. It’s an app.’
The author also uses cultural references to help flesh out characters: Dylan’s full name is Dylan Thomas Taylor, and he is described as quiet and thoughtful: his Mum notes: ‘He’s so deep he could be a poet.’ While Dylan says that his brother was named: ‘Gruff Rhys – the singer from some band called Super Furry Animals. Or he almost was. My parents hadn’t bothered to check the spelling.’ Dylan Thomas and other bands such as the Beach Boys (who wrote the song ‘The Nearest Far Away Place’) are quoted several times. Such intertextuality adds layers of meaning to the text; Dylan goes on to realize: ‘Music isn’t just music – it’s magic as well.’
After the accident, the boys are taken in by their eccentric but extremely kind Head Teacher, called Blessing. Dylan says: ‘Behind her back, everyone called her Beyoncé. She didn’t much look like a Beyoncé though. If you want my opinion, she looked more like an Oprah.’ I particularly loved this character for her warmth and quirkiness. She manages to get through to the boys by playing Aretha Franklin. Dylan comments: ‘After days and days of deep-freeze, it felt like electricity was charging through every fibre of my soul.’
Finally, the two brothers find a home with their good-hearted Aunt Dee and Uncle Owen, 3,279 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in Aberystwyth. Dylan describes the town as ‘a higgledy-piggedly spattering of lights.’ He keeps an eye on his brother Griff when he goes to school and makes new friendships. But there is something that Dylan must come to terms with before he can let go of the past and move on. The reader is kept guessing what Dylan’s secret might be, keeping the tension high through much of the novel. I, for one did not predict the outcome. The book is well constructed and the revelation convincing.
Long has written a page-turning, heartbreaking story full of comedy and magic. I would recommend this novel to any teen from twelve to sixteen years old; they will empathise with the brothers and wish to travel with them on their emotional journey from New York to Aberystwyth as they gradually learn to cope with their grief.