The Unnameables, the debut novel by smalltown reporter and editor Ellen Booraem, is intended for readers aged 11 to 13. The novel takes place on an island whose social structure is guided by the principles of utility and stability to the exclusion of all else. The people are named after their trades (Carpenter, Tanner, Carver, etc.) and are led, or supervised, by a council of ‘Learneds’ who are the keepers of the texts that guide all social and political decisions on the island.
There are a number of interconnected themes: individuality and social good, utility and art, authority and evidence. We are meant to imagine a world in which art, music, and poetry play no part - a world in which the imagination is suppressed. It is a world that is ruled by ‘the Book’ - that is, a world in which traditional authority takes precedence over all else.
It’s all a bit heavy-handed. It may be that the author thinks that ideas have to be delivered to pre-teens with a sledge hammer; that subtlety would be lost on the 12 year old mind. She may be right, but the result is a novel that reads in places like an inverted medieval morality play.
One of the key characters in this novel is the ‘Goatman’. He is literally a half human half goat, a kind of dottering and hapless satyr. Maybe magic or unusual creatures are de rigeur for juvenile fiction; I don’t know.
Despite its flaws, after the first 50 pages the story picks up speed, and I found myself wondering how the plot would unfold. That’s often the best we can hope for in any novel.