Book Review for “A Funeral for an Owl” by Jane Davis.
Summary: “A schoolyard stabbing sends wingbeats echoing from the past. One shocking event. Two teachers risk their careers to help a boy who has nothing. … The best way to avoid trouble, thinks Ayisha Emmanuelle, is to avoid confrontation. As an inner-city schoolteacher, she does a whole lot of avoidance. 14-year-old Shamayal Thomas trusts no one. Not the family, not the gang. And at school, trusting people is forbidden. Jim Stevens teaches history. Haunted by his own, he still believes everyone can learn from the past. History doesn’t always have to repeat itself.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary, UK – London; Other Categories: Novel, Coming-of-Age.
Confession time: I bought this book in 2018 (when it was on sale on Amazon) and I’m really sorry that I didn’t get around to reading it sooner. In fact, reading it now makes me think that if it had been published today, this book might not have been as well received as it was. You see, just from the names here, we can surmise that some of the main characters aren’t white, and well… Davis is most definitely white. Mind you, Davis mentions in the author’s notes that the neighborhood where Shamayal lives, and where Jim grew up is based on her own experience living in council flats (low-rent housing projects, for the US readers here). But even so, in a world of people complaining about cultural appropriation, I wonder if people would see this as a very tenuous link to still being an #OwnVoices novel. This reminds me that we need to read novels not only in the context of the eras of their settings, but also in the context of when the book was written.
So, that out of the way, and keeping this in mind, I honestly believe that Davis did a wonderful job of getting into the heads and hearts of these very diverse characters. Obviously, as Jim was the type of person that Davis apparently grew up with, she probably found him the easiest to write. In fact, I found him to be the most well-rounded of the characters here. Also, since he’s injured in the beginning of the book, we immediately sympathize with him, and that helps build the tension regarding if he’ll pull through by the end of the book. Davis also uses his injury to allow him to hallucinate and using those sections, we get his back story, which I found to be a very effective mechanic. Of course, not all of his story is told through a haze of drugs and delirium, which would have been boring. When he’s lucid, he also tells his story to Ayisha and Shamayal in both flashbacks and as confessions. This makes perfect sense, and I think that Davis’s intention was to have Jim at the center of this story.
This doesn’t mean that Ayisha and Shamayal are underdeveloped characters. In fact, the two of them, together with a character from Jim’s youth – Aimee – are used to build up two scenarios, which both mirror each other, and also differ in many ways. With these characters and each of their stories, together with Jim’s life, we see how Davis likes to hand you the pieces to the puzzle in various ways, so that you eventually get to a full picture. This is something of an expected method from Davis, and while that might sound like it is formulaic, I can assure you it is not. You see, what I have found is that with this mechanic, Davis is able to shuffle how the information gets to the reader, so that the possibilities are practically endless. That means that Davis looks at a story from several different perspectives, and then – like with a collection of photographs of the same thing, taken from different angles and in different lighting – hands the best ones to you, so you can put the whole portrait together in an almost 3D collage.
Okay, so obviously I’m very enamored with Davis and her writing style. I do think she’s an extremely talented story teller, and one that should really be getting far more attention than she’s ever received. So far, of the books of hers I’ve read, I’ve found that each one touches on another subject, and yet they all seem to focus on at least one aspect of the human condition, with which I think we all can identify. This makes Davis’s novels feel almost like they’re meant for us personally, which is a truly unique thing in fiction. I’m certainly going to warmly recommend this novel. Now, if it had been written today, I might have had to reduce my rating by half a star due to today’s sensitivities towards white authors writing characters who come from cultures and/or genders other than their own. But this was written before that was an issue, and that’s why I’m not going to hesitate in giving this book a full five stars. (And yes… this has yet another 5/5 star amazingly beautiful cover, too!)
“A Funeral for an Owl” by Jane Davis is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: 20 Books of Summer 21 (#10 – okay, so I guess I’ll get to at least 15!).