Claire and Ella are the best of friends, and always will be, and not even Ella’s disapproving parents are going to stand between them. But when Claire introduces Ella to Orpheus – a wanderer with an unworldly talent for music – she begins to fear that their romance may be taking Ella down a path which will separate them forever.
A Song for Ella Grey is a retelling of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, but set in the modern-day North of England, and focusing on the tale from the perspective of Ella’s (who takes the role of Eurydice) best friend Claire. I’m familiar with the original myth, but I don’t know it inside out, so I can’t comment on any specific changes Almond may have made to the narrative. From what I do know of the story, however, this seems to be a very faithful retelling (barring the modern setting, of course). I also found the choice of Claire as a narrator interesting because it gave us a somewhat sinister view of Orpheus; while Claire is not immune to the draw Orpheus seems to have over all living things (and many non-living ones, too), her admiration of him is tempered by her feeling that he poses some sort of threat to Ella…
The relationship between Claire and Ella, and how it contrasts with Orpheus and Ella’s relationship, is probably my favourite thing about this book. While the Orpheus/Ella dynamic is very clearly defined, (although it’s never outright stated) there are also strong indications that Claire’s feelings for Ella are not strictly platonic, which makes the objectivity of her narration somewhat doubtful. It’s difficult to tell how much of her suspicion of Orpheus is due to her seeing something in him that the rest of the characters aren’t able to see, and how much is just her fear that she is losing Ella. And despite the original myth being entirely about the love between Orpheus and Eurydice, Almond’s portrayal makes it clear that Claire’s love for Ella is no less powerful than Orpheus’.
I also really loved the magical atmosphere in this book; it’s nothing particularly unusual in a David Almond book, but that’s more of a compliment to all his other books than a criticism of this one. The characters talk early on about trying to bring Greece to Northumberland, and although they’re mainly talking about warmth and sunshine, I believe that they did succeed in bringing the otherworldly feeling of the ancient Greek myths there – as is evidenced by Orpheus’ presence in the first place. Almond’s use of dialect was occasionally a little overdone, but I was mostly able to ignore it, since I was so invested in the story and the characters.
I doubt that any David Almond book will ever make me feel the same wonder that I felt when I first read Skellig and Heaven Eyes (two of my favourite books), but I will always love the beautiful way that he crafts his stories, and – flaws and all – A Song for Ella Grey is no exception to that. I’d recommend this for mythology lovers and magical realism fans, or to anyone who really enjoys Neil Gaiman’s writing, as his books are often quite similar in tone to David Almond’s (though Almond’s books tend to skew a little bit younger).