Skallagrigg by William Horwood

Skallagrigg is a book with which I shared a connection even before I'd read a single word.

My love for the works of William Horwood (especially his Duncton books) will be obvious to anyone who browses this site. What might be less obvious, however, is that disability and computer games are both important in my own life. My mother is a physiotherapist for disabled children and my sister herself has profound multiple disabilities, and inspired by this I have based my academic work in philosophy on writing a new definition of disability.

As for computer games, for years I have worked for, a site devoted to the promotion of computer games accessible to blind people. Indeed, I first heard the term "Skallagrigg" long before I ran into the book since the webmaster of (the site which does for physically disabled gamers what does for visually impaired ones), uses "Skallagrigg" as his online handle.
So, simply by virtue of having one of my favourite authors of all time writing a book about two of my favourite subjects, it was almost inevitable that I would enjoy Skallagrigg. What I did not expect however is that I would find the book a truly profound experience and would now go as far as saying next to Duncton Found, this is possibly the best thing William Horwood has ever written (and for Horwood that is saying something).

The similarities between Skallagrigg and Duncton in tone, in structure and even to a large extent in theme I found quite surprising. As in Horwood's Duncton books, Skallagrigg involves an interweaving of several styles. One is a deeply personal style told with a stark, expressive simplicity and a poetic evocation of emotive descriptions of characters, their feelings and the world around them (especially the natural world). It is amazing that when one of the first pieces of advice writers hear is "show don't tell" when it comes to what characters feel, Horwood is able to completely ignore this rule and yet give you colourful and nuanced depictions of his characters feelings about themselves, each other and the world around them that are as honest as they are beautiful. Where I'd always assumed this style as used in Duncton referred expressly to moles with their simpler, more primal relationship to emotions than wee twofoots with our pretensions and social niceties, Skallagrigg shows I was clearly mistaken.

Another style is an informative, almost academic prose which evokes the longer view of history and the linking of the events of the story to a larger tradition and culture, again a feature shared with several of Horwood's other works. Anyone who had any interest in computer games in the eighties or nineties will be very familiar with this world, where games became iconic and mysterious worlds to explore, a hobby quite arcane to outsiders, where the individual developers themselves were real people with ideas who fans followed, like with the works of favoured authors or composers, and where the very simplicity of the graphics or obscure use of text input created a more mysterious and compelling world than any amount of clinical 3D rendered corporate hype (excuse me, my bias is showing).

Yet, despite knowledge and flavour of the period, Horwood is far too human a writer to make Skallagrigg a dry story of creativity and technology. Indeed I find it fascinating that though Horwood starts with the idea of Skallagrigg as a popular computer game, he quickly and abruptly ties this creation back to a far more immediate and human story. For those with no interest in the world of computer games, the purpose served by Skallagrigg the game in the plot could equally be served by any creative work such as a painting, poem or musical symphony, since though the mechanics of programming play their part Horwood is far more interested in the "why" of the fictional game's creation than the how, and the game itself, though the impetus for the books events quickly fades into less prominence, indeed as a games fan I was a little sorry we didn't see more of it.

One way in which Skallagrigg differs in structure markedly from Duncton is how several threads of plot are interwoven. The story begins with Arthur, a boy with cerebral palsy confined to a horrific institution in north England in the 1920's, and then shuttles to Esther, a girl with the same condition born in the 1960's who eventually will design the game Skallagrigg.

While I did initially find the leap from Arthur's story into Esther's somewhat of a let down (particularly with how after a shocking and brutal introduction Horwood leaves Arthur quite literally in a terrible place), Horwood is far too skilful an author to let the pace slacken too much. The very human story of how Esther's father Richard copes with his wife's death, and then with a disabled daughter who was first fostered, then spent life in day centres and institutions for several years before living with Richard full time (a story which resonated particularly with me due to my own sister having been adopted from such a world herself), is one which in the hands of a less competent author could've been seen as trite, or overly sentimental. In particular the very matter of fact way in which Horwood deals not only with Esther and other disabled people of normal (or often well above normal) intelligence and their problems with communication and society, but also with people with learning disabilities in a straightforward, gentle, but utterly honest fashion, neither hiding their difficulties nor elevating them to an unrealistic and objectified level of sweetness is to be absolutely applauded, and is extremely rare even in academic or social works dealing with disability (those few that do touch on intellectual disabilities at all). I was not surprised when I heard (after finishing the book), that Horwood's daughter herself has cerebral palsy, since the realism in his depictions of Esther's life, from Esther's troubles at school to her desire to learn more of her mother, and even her father's difficulty connecting with the world of disabled children definitely speak of an author with personal experience to draw on.

A further layer to the telling of Skallagrigg is Horwood's recounting of the stories of Arthur and the Skallagrigg almost as folk tales, albeit folk tales set in a grim and dehumanizing institution told in a frank, brutal and powerful fashion by people for whom so called normal communication is a struggle in the extreme. Esther's eventual quest to find Arthur in many places feels almost mythical, which adds yet another vane of complexity to this already rich and compelling story.

Yet, for all of these fascinating different elements, Skallagrigg is fundamentally a story of life with pace, flow and form like any other. In most places in this respect Horwood succeeds admirably, however the very few problems Skallagrigg has are related to bearing this load of heavy meaning throughout the narrative, since while the conflicts Esther has around others, both as a child trying to bridge the difficult gap with the grandparents of the mother she never knew, and as a young adult trying to balance all the usual feelings of love and attraction despite a world which perceives disabled people as fundamentally without the desire for relationships, there are still a few places the narrative drags. In several instances, particularly detailing Richard's efforts to make a home for Esther, Horwood's realism (even down to things like describing Richard's finances) makes the book feel a little too much like a detailed instructional account of "how I made a home for my disabled daughter" as opposed to the profound and human story lying underneath. Undoubtedly this is partly due to the narrative device Horwood uses (much as he does in Duncton) of having the story have a real chronicler and writer who is scribing the tale for us uninitiated, however in some places, to myself who is familiar with such things as wheel chair access and the problems of social care (albeit Horwood's view of the system is not modern), I felt things were somewhat too pedagogical.

I also felt that certain elements of the story, though introduced were rather sidelined. For example Esther's meeting with and partly relationship to Andy, an active disability advocate (and one with some less than savoury personal tastes), is one that falls off fairly quickly.

Then again, in the matter of Skallagrigg as an exploration of disability, Horwood himself should also be commended for the way that he treats his non-disabled characters. Nowhere, even in the abusive environment that Arthur lives in in the 1920's, does Horwood ever suggest that to people with disabilities, the able bodied majority have one universal attitude or relation, and though he is not shy about showing sadism, violence, hatred and ignorance, Horwood equally shows a large amount of acceptance, tolerance and love, and this generally positive attitude and willingness to show the best, as well as the worst of people (disabled or otherwise), is what separates Skallagrigg from several of the very few other works that deal with profound disability.

The fantastical elements of the story are comparatively few, and while initially I was a little disappointed that we do get these mythical elements explained, upon pondering the explanation I did find it a more than satisfactory one, particularly since it did not mystify or glorify disability, or suggest that there is anything profound in disability itself (an oddly common mistake often made by the non-disabled).
My only really major problem with the book in general, is that the ending is too long in coming. Horwood resolves most of the plot around the Skallagrigg three quarters through the book, and leaves the final quarter to explore Esther's marriage. Not only was I extremely sad that after everything Esther had been through her marriage was comparatively unhappy, but also this final section took the focus away from Esther, the Skallagrigg and those around her, and onto Esther's husband's travails as a windsurfer.
While this section did involve some beautiful and magical descriptions of the sea and the Cornish coast that were very classic Horwood, at the same time I found Esther's husband someone it was difficult to care for (particularly given his less than ideal relationship with Esther), neither did I find his issues around reconnecting with his love of surfing particularly captivated my interest, compared with what had gone before. It also didn't help that for this final section,  the majority of the rest of the cast who I'd come to grow and love were absent, making it almost a separate story in itself, and one which didn't particularly feel like it needed to be told.

That being said, the final end was certainly apt when it came, and was beautiful in the way that only Horwood can bring beauty to the ending of a book. In particular it provided yet a new layer of meaning to Skallagrigg above and beyond the prior explanation that will make rereading the book a different experience.

All in all Skallagrigg is a truly amazing book. I have heard the term "magical realism" before, but rarely have I found books that justify it so completely.

It is certainly a story that will take imagination, empathy and commitment, both emotional and intellectual from a reader, and is not a book for those who just want to read about beautiful people having exciting action packed adventures, however if a person is prepared to go through the maze, the reward at the end is well worth the journey.

As is often said of the Skallagrigg in the book, you cannot know what the Skallagrigg is but must experience it for yourself, and if you feel you're ready for the journey that will be a truly amazing experience.

10/10 If you feel you're ready for the journey that will be a truly amazing experience.

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4 positive reader review(s) for Skallagrigg

Skallagrigg reader reviews

from UK

A truly wonderful novel, uplifting and heartbreaking by turns. Superb prose and characterisation.. Riveting.
10/10 ()

from Australia

I read the book "Skallagrigg" for the first time many years ago. Purchased while I was traveling around UK and Europe in 1989, I will always remember reading the climax of Arthur's story and about the true identity of the "Skallagrigg" on a very wet day snuggled in bed in a B&B on the island of Arran and crying copious tears. For me, this revelation had a personal touch, as what Arthur had lost, I lost too after being adopted at birth. I often re-read the books I love, and go back to this book often. And given the fixation on video games these days, I am waiting for someone to follow Esther's path. Highly recommended to all for a view of other worlds which exist within our society.
9/10 ()

from England

I first read this book 15 years ago and was captivated by it. I sadly lent the book to a friend with who I lost contact with over the years and lost the best book I have ever read. As the years past I eventually started the quest to find 'The Skallagrig' (the book) and did so in a small book shop in Welshpool. At last I once again joined Martin, Esther, Daniel, and Tom, in their hunt for Arthur. Captivating, inspiring, emotional BRILLIANT. This has now started me in a career where I work with the mentally and physically disabled. Thank you William and Esther x
10/10 ()

from Torremolinos

This fine novel, which I am promoting here, is called Skallagrigg. It left me devastated, but in a good way! This superlative storyteller played me like a violin and evoked, in me, every emotion known to man and probably even a few alien ones at that. I can not begin to describe my admiration for his powers of description and narrative. I salute you, Mr. Horwood!
10/10 ()

from Leicester

This is a book so inspirational I try to read it every year. It was the book which lead me to read everything by the author William Horwood. If anyone asks, it's my all time favourite. Read the story of Athur and Ester and how they cope with cerebral palsy, it is heart warming and inspiring. I cry every time I read it.
10/10 ()

9.8/10 from 6 reviews

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