Style: Average → Good
Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive
In Brief: A quirky story using the difficulties faced by a small town and by one family in particular to highlight the effect art has on people. Family difficulties because of money problems. The efforts to make an unattractive town appealing.
Published in: 2005
Age Range: Pre Teens
Period: Near Future
Setting: Manod, a small village in Wales
- Dylan Hughes is the only boy left in Manod Elementary School among all the girls. The Hughes family run the local garage in Manod. Mr Hughes can fix anything, but is worried about their lack of money. Mrs Hughes is an expert at finding bargains at Car Boot Sales. Dylan is eternally optimistic about Manod, Marie is the beauty and Minnie the brains of the outfit.
Dylan unwittingly becomes an art consultant to the National Gallery in exile when one painting a week is to be selected for display in London. Somehow, in their different ways each painting has a significant effect on the people of Manod, the quiet little village where Dylan lives, literally at the end of the road.
Rather like Hilary McKay's, Frank Boyce's families and communities are quirky but believable. Each member is a real character; the only surprise is finding them all in one place. Dylan is our point-of-view character, and through his recognisably 11-year-old mind we are introduced to the others in the town and to a clutch of the most famous paintings of the National Gallery.
The main conceit of the plot is based on the apparently factual wartime evacuation of the National Gallery collection to a disused slate mine outside Blaenau Ffestiniog. Here, the scene is set in the near future after floods have caused the building of a new Thames Barrier and forced Parliament, the Royal Family and the National Gallery to move to higher ground, in the case of the latter a mountain in Wales. Due to a misunderstanding between Dylan — lover of the Mutant Ninja Turtles — and the expert from the National Gallery — lover of classical artists — Dylan is taken on as an unofficial selector of the Nation's Weekly Painting.
There is a kind of dual thread running through the book. On the one hand, the effect which paintings have on people; on the other hand, the effect which people have on each other. Neither operates in any very profound way, but both leave their effect on the reader. Each painting Dylan chooses affects someone, and ultimately affects the whole town. “Terrible” Evans sees in Massy's A Grotesque Old Woman a point of comparison beside which anyone else feels beautiful. Dylan's Mam sees a Party on Sticks in Renoir's The Umbrellas. Mr Davis gets a whole new lease of life when he sees Monet's Bathers at La Grenouillère and so on.
At the same time, individuals and whole families leave the village, despairing of life ever prospering there, including Dylan's dad. The children at the school use only grey paint, and only Dylan seems convinced of Manod's greatness: “We turned the bend and you could see the town snuggled up in the valley. The wet slate roofs were shining blue and there were little spindles of smoke rising up from all the chimneys.”
There's no real happy ending as such, but a few threads and a few families do come together, and there are moments aplenty along the way when you feel like cheering: when Team Hughes gets its act together and fixes new tyres on the art expert's car; when the entire school turns up in the Hughes' upstairs room to see the Wilton Diptych; when Manod hosts its nighttime party, and the great Umbrella Snake which people turn up just to see. It's just a village at the end of the road by a worn-out slate mine, but it manages to lift your heart.
- The effect paintings have on people
- Keeeping families together when there's little money
On Monday she asked Ms Stannard to put it in the playground.
'Umbrellas,' said Ms Stannard. 'There's a health-and-safety issue there. They could poke each other's eyes out.'
'I never thought of that,' said Mam.
'Then again, if you can't poke someone's eye out in primary school, when can you? Let's give it a go, Mrs Hughes.'
That lunchtime, no-one opted for Wet Play. Even though it was raining as hard as usual everyone took an umbrella and played out. Actually there weren't enough umbrellas, but that was OK. People just shared, like in the picture. In the playground, it felt like you were inside a great big restless tent. Back in the classroom, the Connect Four and the big draughts stayed in their boxes
Sunday 11th June 2006