Article published on September 15, 2011.
Naomi Wood’s debut novel takes as its premise the idea of a religious schism in England – but this is not a split between sects, rather a reckoning between the forces of the Church and militant atheism. England has become a theocracy, and the Godless have been banished. Some of them, the first wave, were guilty of burning churches and fighting the religious authorities; others chose to go rather than stay in a country where church attendances were compulsory and a strict moral code was enforced. The island where the Secular Movement ends up is not named or identified, but it is a bleak, windswept place, previously inhabited before the Godless were put there. Now the only links with home are a weekly boat that deposits supplies on the shore, and a plane that overflies the island every Sunday, on its way to who knows where, and which the islanders gather to observe without fail.
Nathaniel is a teenaged boy who lives on the island – he was born there. His father was lost at sea – there is no meat on the island, and its fisherman take many risks to land a regular catch – and his mother is agaraphobic and losing the will to go on without his Da. That leaves Nathaniel free to run his gang of hooligans, the Malades, their self-appointed duty to watch the islanders for signs of any kind of religious observance. When they decide someone is suspect they resort to intimidation and abuse, but not outright violence; Nathaniel struts around, full of his own importance, brutalising his gang, in need of adult intervention to prevent his decline in to immorality and violence.
In to this deeply unhealthy and insular place comes a stowaway on the weekly boat: Sarah, also a teenager, whose mother was caught by the police aiding the perpetrators of a church burning ten years before. Sarah believes her mother is on the Island, but she does not know for sure. It’s not long before Nathaniel encounters her hiding place in a vacant house, and their fates become intertwined. Nathaniel’s growing feelings for Sarah lead him in to a double-life where he must continue to appear hard-hearted to his young gang whilst secretly he’s smitten with her. The devious side of Nathaniel comes up with a plan to keep Sarah on the Island, enmeshing Eliza, a young Island native, in his machinations, but he reckons without the growing militancy of the other Malades.
The Godless Boys is a compelling and well-executed novel, though don’t expect too much from it in terms of the dystopian elements – many of the defining characteristics of the Island and its inhabitants would be true of any isolated and insular community – and it’s perhaps best read as a tragic love story rather than anything else. It doesn’t really explore the rights and wrongs of religion versus secularism, though a central theme is clearly what happens when a group is banished from its home and dumped in isolation. While the community of the Island may feel a little sketchily drawn at times (despite his hell-raising, Nathaniel never actually encounters the Island’s referred-to police, and it’s hard to get a sense of how many or how few people actually live here), the central premise of the story and the strong characterisation, especially the initially unlikeable but maturing Nathaniel, make The Godless Boys an enjoyable debut and a worthwhile read.