Set in an alternative history where England is ruled by the Church and the secularist community has been banished to a solitary island, Naomi Wood's debut novel,"The Godless Boys", is a story about a dramatic week on the island. Nathaniel, the son of an original member of the secular movement, leads a gang of teenage boys, the Malades, who are determined to protect the island from any religious influence. This means intimidating potential "gots" and prowling the streets at night. Eliza Michalka lives a sorry existence on the island - a part-time prostitute and a part-time undertaker who drops corpses into the surrounding ocean - she pines after her lost love, the aloof fishmonger Arthur Stansky. However, this week all their lives will be changed when Sarah, daughter of 1976 church-burner, Laura Wicks, stows away to seek out her mother on The Island...
We are living in a time that has seen the rise of fundamental religiosity and New Atheism. Therefore it isn't difficult to see where the author's inspiration came from. Why she decided to set it in 1986 is another matter altogether. There is little in the way of obvious parallels with the real 1986, but I guess it helps to keep matters simple without the presence of the internet and the normalcy of mobile phones. The whole book is markedly minimalistic without being pretentious. This is perhaps reflective of the two radically opposing philosophies that form the backdrop of the story.
Wood does not explore the details of either the Christian dogma that now rules England or the strict secularist movement of The Island. Two vital dates are given for when secularists, usually involved in anti-religious activity such as church burning, were deported - 1951 and 1976 - and we are given an overview of the violent struggles between the state and rebels, but otherwise the history of the whole conflict is kept down to a minimum. Likewise aside from Christian imagery and the hatred certain characters, such as Nathaniel's Malades, have towards religion, there are little intricate details regarding what each side actually believes. Despite one newspaper critic describing The Malades as Richard Dawkins in bovver boots, there is nothing whatsoever mentioned regarding a scientific argument against the Christians. The Secular Movement's problems with the church are never lain out or described. Therefore, this could be a story about any society divided into polarized factions.
This leaves the story to be entirely character-driven and concerned with the relationships its players experience over seven days. One man, an ardent first generation secularist, will re-evaluate his relationship with God. Nathaniel will be made to reconsider his devotion to The Malades. Arthur and Eliza will have to look at the personal defensive walls they have created. However, the driving force for change in all of this - the story's catalyst - is Sarah. She enters having already received a revelation after 10 years not knowing her mother had been arrested for being involving a Secular Movement terrorist attack. Although the story follows her fact-seeking mission, she seems to be the only character that isn't experiencing personal changes in her attitude, having already gone through a dramatic personal crisis.
Despite some of its adult content, "The Godless Boys" reminds me of the typical sort of material read for GCSE English. This is not a slight on its simplicity, but I think there might be a lot teenagers can relate to in the text. "The Godless Boys" is also a story about consequences and the way different individuals react to dramatic changes. Nathaniel is a part of his tragic father's legacy, but little does he realize he is leaving a legacy of his own in The Malades. His personal philosophy and beliefs have their own consequences. Wood succeeds in getting this across, providing certain moral twists reminiscent of David McKenna's "American History X" that provokes a lot of thought.