Book review: The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood

It’s 1986 and for 30 years England has been subdued by a ruthless Church state while resentful and restless secularists are exiled on a remote offshore island.

Atheist adolescent youths, bored, lonely and full of hatred, roam the island’s streets ever alert to English spies and any signs of ‘churchliness’ while across the water theocrats deride their ‘godless kin’.

This is the bleak, dystopian world conjured up by Naomi Wood in a dark and disturbing debut novel which uses religious conflict as a prism through which to examine relationships, emotions and the devastation of lives bereft of hope and love.

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Imaginative, character-driven and laced with contemporary themes like faith, intolerance, power and resilience, The Godless Boys is a thought-provoking and cleverly worked story.

Teenager Nathaniel Malraux and his shaven-headed gang, the Malades, have nowhere to go and nothing to do, so they terrorise the local residents and harass anyone suspected of being a believer or ‘Got’.

They are children not just of their parents, who were deported from the mainland during uprisings in the 1950s and 1970s, but also the offspring of the ‘Secular Movement’.

The focal point of their dissent is the town’s museum, full of religious books and pamphlets sent over by the Church and a reminder to the young islanders of ‘how easy it is for faith to hijack your head’.

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Into this menacing maelstrom comes stowaway Sarah Wicks who turns up on the boat from England as it unloads its weekly cargo of basic essentials.

Sarah is on a mission to find the mother she had been told was an ‘adulterer’ but who, she has learned, was actually deported to the island for taking part in the burning of a church 10 years ago.

It’s a dangerous place for a girl who has known nothing but ‘the croon of Church comfort and has the presence of God in her like a second eye’.

Sarah becomes swept up in the gang’s perilous game play and whilst one of the boys falls in love with her, the rest suspect she is a spy and want revenge for the wrongs of the past.

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As the violence escalates, the adventure that was once ‘terrifying and thrilling’ for Sarah becomes increasingly deadly.

The Godless Boys is a powerful and imaginative story...Wood uses richly descriptive prose to create an edgy atmosphere of misery, isolation and desperation whilst exploring faith and faithlessness in its most extreme forms.

A promising debut.

(Picador, paperback, £12.99)

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