Mobile Library (January 2015) by David Whitehouse is a far more serious novel than touted by its publicist and pre-publication reviewers. Yes, it is “cleverly written” and poignantly funny with a smattering of fairly ingenious one-liners (that often seem like forced attempts to be witty). But these belie the true depth and breadth of the story’s inner message: What it really means to be a family.
Bobby Nusku is a scrawny, pale, quirky eleven-year-old bullied by his classmates, taunted by his alcoholic father, and barely tolerated by his father’s live-in airhead girlfriend. Bobby hoards what little is left of his lost mother under his bed and hatches a plan to turn his best friend, Sunny, into a cyborg. When the plan goes horribly awry, Bobby is devastated. Lonely and friendless, he literally bumps into Rosa Reed, graced with a peculiar disability, and subsequently befriends her divorced mother, Valerie, who cleans a huge mobile library (hence the novel’s eponymous title). When Val loses her job and Bobby is thrashed by his father, the newly formed ersatz family – Rosa, Val, Bobby, and Bert (the pudgy dog) – abscond in the library, driving across the English countryside, escaping into a series of nearly fantastical adventures that parallel the library books they read during their journey.
The first chapter – “The End” – is almost a deal breaker, giving away part of the denouement. But the story quickly flashes back to depict why the library is finally perched precariously on the edge of a steep seaside cliff. This plot conceit turned out to be refreshingly intriguing and ingenious: What we are first led to believe will, might, going to happen…Well, does it? We are forced to read on well into the dark night to confirm or deny our suspicions…and assumptions.
Bobby’s story is more than “poignant.” While the cartoonish cover promises a delightful adventure, the pages within are riddled with much darker subjects: violence, child abuse, pedophilia, bigotry, hatred, and perverted lying and misunderstanding, just to name a few. This is not an evening’s lighthearted fare, but a studied glimpse into the agonies and subsequent delights of a misunderstood youth on the verge of adulthood. Yes, there are many entertaining moments, but they are painted with a dark palette worthy and reminiscent of the American humorist Fannie Flagg.
Bed, Whitehouse’s first novel, won a number of awards and is published in eighteen countries. I suspect that Mobile Library, his nearly “cleverly written” brilliant second novel, will be, too.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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