Boy In The Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Boy In The Tower appealed to me mainly through that instantly evocative title. It’s a rich one that, and one which speaks a lot about the instant power of titles. Note the lack of a ‘The’. It’s not The Boy In The Tower. It’s ‘Boy’. And I liked that. That sort of ‘woah, wait, this could be any boy’ feel in this tower. That sort of global tension of the title straight away, before I’ve even read the book.
So what to make of Boy In The Tower? If I were to tell you that it’s reminiscent of Attack The Block, and War of the Worlds then that would sum it up well. It is the debut novel of Ho-Yen and it is, I think a book that is not without issues, but it is also a book that made me devour it and realise how much I loved it. It’s a contradictory experience, so I think what I’m going to do now is tell you more about this dreamy, odd, almost fairy-tale book and what it does (and by the way, what it does, it does really well).
Ade lives at the top of a tower block. And he loves it, he really does, because he can see the world spilt out beneath him and remind himself that he’s part of this world. He needs to do this last part, because his mother’s ill. She spends most days sleeping now, and doesn’t go outside. It’s not safe. And when the strange triffid-esque plants (nicknamed Bluchers) appear, and the towers around them start to fall down, the world becomes very unsafe. Everyone starts to leave. Ade’s best friend leaves, but Ade can’t. He won’t abandon his mother. He can’t. And so we begin on this story of seige, with plants that can bring a tower block down and kill, and a boy who thinks he’s very much alone.
It’s a brilliant premise and once Ho-Yen hits her stride, it’s delivered with a strong and rich skill that bodes very well. I found the first third of the story a little difficult and ‘scene-setting-y’ (so not a word, but you know what I mean) but when the story kicks into gear, it kicks in high and hard and fast.
I loved this book when it worked and in a way I loved it even when it didn’t fully grab me. Ho-Yen’s strengths, for me, lie in people and the dynamics of character and relationship. And it’s when those relationships are placed in immediate and vivid peril, that she shines.
I’d recommend this for confident readers starting to hunger for something big and tense but still within their reach. I’d also maybe read this as a lead in towards authors like Jules Verne or HG Wells.