‘I googled if it’s normal to hallucinate manifestations of your grief. Unsurprisingly it’s not. ‘Owen’s dad died four months ago, since when he’s been haunted by visions of ominous skeletal birds. Struggling at a new school, Owen feels overwhelmed by grief. Until fellow student, Duncan Cyman, comes into his life. In the striking and unusual Grief Angels by David Owen, we visit the domain of the male teen psyche, interwoven with an intriguing strand of magical realism.
Outwardly a well-balanced young man, Duncan is on medication for diagnosed depression, a fact he’s neglected to share with his group of friends. Having hung out together for years, Duncan senses that they’re drifting apart. The others seem to be preoccupied with girls and pornography, getting served in pubs, achieving gym bodies, pursuits that he’s perceptive enough to label ‘performative masculinity.’
Drawn to Owen, Duncan senses something different in him, a feeling reciprocated by Owen, who identifies a ‘lostness’ in the other boy that ‘might mean we understand each other.’
Grief Angels follows their unfolding friendship and dawning recognition of societal pressures, while persistently hovering in the background are the dark birds with their talons and oily feathers, intent on spiriting Owen away. If they are indeed the figment of a febrile imagination, how to explain the feathered nubs beginning to sprout on his shoulder blades? Here the novel segues into fantasy as Owen undertakes an otherworldly journey to a mysterious twilight realm.
Author David Owen has described the novel’s fantastical elements as ‘shamelessly unsubtle metaphors,’ an observation I’d agree with. Where it really works for me is in its portrayal of male teen friendships. The dialogue was so authentic, the bantering and hiding of feelings, the denial of vulnerability. Here, the boys’ friendship proves to be a catalyst for change, both for them and their wider teen circle.
With its focus on male mental health, this memorable novel is a welcome addition to a burgeoning genre.
Grief Angels by David Owen is published by Atom, 320 pages.