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Up on Cloud Nine

Style: Outstanding

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Play-like appreciation of the life of an unusual boy; the support and friendship of the main characters and their families. Possible suicide attempt.

Cover of Up on Cloud Nine

Author: Anne Fine

Publisher: Corgi

Published in: 2002

Age Range: Young Teens+

Period: Contemporary

Setting: Hospital

Genres:  Coping withFriendshipGrowing-UpHumorous


Characters:

  • Ian is the 14-year-old narrator, only child of his adoptive parents.
  • Stolly is Ian's best friend, a boy of many contrasts: expert at the violin but unable to tie his shoelaces; full of knowledge, but with his head in the clouds; full of cheerfulness, but with strange near-suicidal moods.
  • Geoff & Sue are Ian's down-to-earth parents who have practically brought up Stolly between them.
  • Esme & Franklin are Stolly's parents, top fashion photographer and top barrister respectively, who are so distracted by their professions that they are happy to let Ian's family look after their son.

Synopsis:

The narrative is led by Ian, a 14-year-old schoolboy, at the hospital bed of his best friend Stolly (Stuart Terence Oliver) who's just recovering from a serious fall, which may or may not have been from an attempt at suicide, which has left him with breaks and bruises and concussed. To pass the time before Stolly wakes, Ian uses his rough book to remember events of his and Stolly's friendship, stretching back to when they were both toddlers. These memories are interspersed with the comings-and-goings in the hospital ward as Ian's parents and Stolly's dad come and go and the hospital staff and social workers try to find out what happened.

Through Ian's memories, we discover that Stolly is a remarkable young man, full of enthusiasms and voluble with his knowledge and ponderings while prone to fits of melancholic introspection. This trip to hospital is simply the most serious of a lifelong tendency to accidents not least on account of his happy-go-lucky attitude.

Notes:

I hesitate to pour too much praise on this book because that will almost certainly mean a let-down for anyone reading it afterwards. What appeals is the matter-of-factness of Ian's family who accept and protect Stolly while his own parents are elsewhere. It's clear that Stolly is proud of his parents, and they of him; it's simply that the lifestyle their professions demand and the commitment they give to it leave them almost unaware that they have a son.

All the characters are quite real and quite normal, with the possible exception of the plainclothes policewoman and hospital social worker-type who are classed as enemies as they clearly don't know Stolly enough to understand what might have led to his fall from a top-floor window. (We don't know in the end what really happened to Stolly, but Ian knows that he'll find out.) Even the teachers at school are real people who want their pupils to be able to learn and pass the exams they must.

If I were to risk putting the thing in a nutshell, the book is about unstinting love, love without sentiment. The love of Ian's parents who adopted him without being able to tell him a single thing about his background. The love of Ian and his family for their idiosyncractic and occasionally exasperating neighbour and his family. The (unspoken) friendship-love of Ian and Stolly for each other, each supporting the other in his own way. And, although not obvious, the love of Stolly's parents for their son. All this love, unstated from day to day, comes to a focus in the hospital when “this time Stolly's too white, too still.”

My advice is: just read it. Although the principal characters are about fourteen years old there's nothing that couldn't be read and understood by an eleven-year-old. Look out for Stolly's explanation of how boys do have feelings but must hide them at school because of the invisible scorecard. Laugh when Stolly finds a school uniform for a boy thrown out of an exam without one. And, I suppose, cry when Ian tries to get through to Stolly by reminding them of all the good times they'd had together.

“Well, that's the thing about Stol. He's like that, isn't he?”

“Like what?”

Whose word to choose? I did a silent test run. As I have said, the teachers use 'eccentric' if they're feeling positive (and if they're not, they say 'damn nuisance'). Mrs Fraser calls him 'mercurial'. My dad says 'bats' or 'touched with the feather of madness'. Some kids say 'weird'. Mum says he's 'his own person'.

None of them seemed quite the thing.

“Well,” I said, “Stol is famous for doing really stupid things.”

For what had come to mind was once when we were picking our way barefoot over the stones in the river. Stol had spread out his arms to the sunlight and said to me, “Hey, Ian, can you feel the ghost of all the other great days we've had down here?”

“No,” I had said, and thought no more about it. But now I did. Now I thought, Do thoughts like that work both ways for Stolly? If he gets low, does he see the ghosts of all the other bad times queueing behind the one that he's actually having

Saturday 19th July 2003