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Murder Slim Review: I AM DAVID

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I AM DAVID is possibly the most surprising book on THE SAVAGE KICK's recommended reading list and on my Top 20 list. What the hell is a children's book doing sitting alongside Kafka, Fante, Celine, Sartre? Well, shut off that it's a "kid's novel", it's a book for everyone. For an 11-year-old isolated, bookish nutjob like me, it shaped my view of great writing. And when I revisit it, my reponse doesn't change. David is one of those compelling literary outsiders, strange yet likeable. And Holm's writing is clean, efficient and effective. It doesn't matter than David is a kid, and that the writing isn't elaborate... I AM DAVID is a fine novel.

I Am David

The novel starts with David imprisoned in a concentration camp, but the first lines throw us straight into the action:
"David lay quite still in the darkness, listening to the men's low muttering. But this evening he was aware of their voices only a vague meaningless noise in the distance, and he paid no attention to what they were saying.
"'You must get away tonight,' the man had told him. 'Stay awake so that you're ready just before the guard's changed. When you see me strike a match, the current will be cut off and you can climb over - you'll have half a minute for it, no more.'"

David calling the guard "The Man" is a nice touch... he knows his name but refuses to use it as it feels it would humanise someone he hates. For much of the novel, it's unclear why "The Man" has helped David escape. At first, David thinks it is some tortuous game. The Man will let him escape so far, and then shoot him in the back. He imagines the guards laughing at the sport of it all. The Man is an unseen presence at all times in the book, the reason why David only travels at night. And the reason why his journey to freedom - represented by reaching the port of Salonica and stowaway on a ship to Denmark - is so fraught with problems. David is often starving, thirsty and alone much of the time. There are insights into his mental state, his battle to remain focussed and shut out any distractions. At one stage David is badly cut up making his way through tangled undergrowth, all because he refuses to stop following south on his compass. To succeed he must not waver.

But I AM DAVID isn't just miserabilist. As he starts to experience a world he's never seen, David becomes increasingly fascinated by its beauty. There's a lovely passage when he eats an orange for the first time, unsure of what it is... or even if it's poisonous. The moment when he washes for the first time is also beautifully expressed. The contrast of David's grey experience in the prison is contrasted by the brightly coloured sunrises that he is so stunned by.

A few other characters do pop into the book, and they are mostly kindly adults. But David remains unsure of them, and strikes out on his own again. This is a book without much dialogue, but - despite being in very detached third person - captures both spoken word and interior thought well.

I AM DAVID only betrays its main target audience in a couple of ways. Firstly, there are a lot of exclamation marks, which shift a serious sentence into something that sounds more childlike. It's best to imagine they are not there. Witness the change from:
"When he was little, it had been his most burning desire to get the better of them, especially of the man. And now he would! They would be forced to shoot him as they watched him walking quietly away, and taking no notice of him!"
"When he was little, it had been his most burning desire to get the better of them, especially of the man. And now he would. They would be forced to shoot him as they watched him walking quietly away, and taking no notice of him."

Another problem is that the finale is melodramatic. It works with the concept of the novel, downbeat with a glimmer of hope, but Holm's writing finally does become flowery. But that doesn't destroy how well the rest of the book works.

You could probably read I AM DAVID in a few hours. But it will stay with you afterwards. And isn't that what made another childhood novel - THE LEMON - work so well? And even if you don't want to take a dive into this childhood book, why not get your kids to read it instead of wordy, indulgent shit like HARRY POTTER? I AM DAVID celebrates self-reliance but also a love of freedom, colour and life. I've ploughed through 400 page novels that failed to achieve that... and that's why I AM DAVID deservedly sits as part of SK's reading list.


Alright, let's get to the movie. Watching it today has made me appreciate the book even more.

A capsule review is that the I AM DAVID movie is shit. They lose the main appeal of the book... the sense of David's honesty and self-reliance. They lose the simplistic beauty of David washing for the first time and discovering the taste of fruit.

It's hard to adapt a film which focuses on a young boy, but I AM DAVID really fucks it up. The kid who plays David is a bad actor whose main facial expression is contemplating his next shit. They don't explore David's thoughts enough. The movie adds in ham-fisted social commentary, overdoes the romance, overdoes the comedy (with some irritating music), and adds some action scenes. It just doesn't focus enough on David's revelations in discovering the real world.

The movie deserves some credit for emphasising colours (particularly green) to try and get across David's sense of wonderment. But the filmakers fuck up on many other levels. They fuck up the pacing with ponderous flashbacks and ruin the finale with David's all-too-obvious dream sequences about a blonde lady. And, of course, there's the dreaded Hollywood happy ending.

If you're one of those who have only seen the movie - and I hope that's only a few of you - don't dismiss the book. In fact, make sure you pick up Anne Holm's I AM DAVID. She knew what she was doing. The filmmakers didn't.

Review by Steve Hussy