21 March 2014

BOOK: Tip of the Tongue

Tip of the Tongue is a brilliant short story, told from the perspective of young Jonny, a boy whose grandparents emigrated from Germany to Maine between World War I and II. It's true that the Doctor and Nyssa feature very little in this, but their presence is felt all the way through. I'd love to see Ness given a full-length novel with this TARDIS team as I really enjoyed their company. During their televised adventures, I wasn't overly sold on them, but following Tip of the Tongue, I just want more.

This is a highly enjoyable tale about prejudice and attitude. We are introduced swiftly to Jonny's world, without any of the 'he walked down the mysterious corridor' melodramatics of previous titles, through his relationship with the other 'outcast' of the town Nettie. Whereas he is excluded for his heritage (given this is set in 1945, Germans aren't the most popular people in America) Nettie is excluded for her colour; she is the only person of mixed race in the area. Although these are potentially sensitive topics, I felt Ness handled them with just enough delicacy and respect to make their inclusion worthwhile. It's also nice to have a World War II story dealing with the consequences of the war 'back home' somewhere that isn't Britain. 

Jonny and Nettie both live alone with their mothers, all four working all day every day just so they can afford meat once every two weeks. Jonny works at a local diner, and Nettie at the gas station where she's just supposed to man the till but ends up doing all the mechanical work too because there's no-one else too, and she learnt from her uncle (who's no longer around either). They attend the only local public school, but at the time of this story, it's the summer holidays. There is of course the culture of teenage crazes and crushes, which are brought in as the central focus of the book rather than being a sideline necessity. This is a clever move on Ness' part, and works really effectively.

The craze in question are the Truth Tellers - small creatures that hang from your mouth and can read thoughts to convey the truth to people. The wearer has no control of them, and there are Truth Sessions often organised in the local cinema where everyone directs negative truths at one person. The reason Jonny is so interested in these creatures is because he wants to impress Marisa, a girl in his class. She is of course much more popular than him, and so is friends with the daughter of the richest man in the area: Annabelle Acklin. The Acklins moved into the area five years ago, and destroyed the only mansion around to build their own, which earned them their fair share of resentment. It is quickly sketched that everyone despises them, and only does as they say because there is no alternative. Mr Acklin owns both the factory and the store, which is run by his wife. If anyone were to speak out against them, they would lose their jobs and probably a lot more besides. This is demonstrated when he is threatening Nettie and she stumbles backwards, marking his new car. She is subsequently fired, purely because everyone is afraid of these people.

Jonny spends a whole two dollars on a Truth Teller to impress Marisa, but never gets the chance to use it. She turns up once at the diner, but he is not confident enough to use it after receiving an impromptu Truth Session. Jonny is painted sadly and sympathetically throughout, and it's almost immediately obvious how much affection Nettie has for him. It is the classic teenage love story, but played out superbly. Just as he is about to tell Marisa how he feels about her, the Acklins' mansion is destroyed and the Dipthodat are revealed. Their physical appearance is described very visually but still leaves a lot to the imagination thanks to Ness' use of similies. They are said to be like sheep-fish, with a bit of squirrel mixed in. Wonderfully, they are referred to as sheepfish for the remainder of the novel despite Nyssa explaining the creatures' origins. The house was never real, and constructed from a similar product to Earth sugar, the Doctor tells us. Annabelle transforms into a Dipthodat too.

Nettie, growing increasingly tired of Jonny's dithering, tells him to reveal his feelings to Marisa. However, the American has just pinched Annabelle's coat and he begins to see her in a different light. He suddenly realises where his allegiances lie, and leaves with Nettie. 

The Fifth Doctor appears only thrice in this story, but his presence is felt from the moment he steps out of the TARDIS to his summary of events that concludes the story. Ness' Doctor is completely authentic of his television persona, and we get lovely mentions of his meddlings as well. A highlight in this area for me was Jonny's mum talking about him inspecting the factory where she works (Acklin's), and her comments about how he always managed to retain that wholly white look. It also made me realise what a big moment the end of The Caves of Androzani is. The Doctor's outfit stays pristine through Davison's tenure, but in his final episode it begins bloodied and muddied. It emphasises what a grand moment his sacrifice is even more. Thanks Mr Ness.

Nyssa is also really enjoyable. The whole 'alien genius' thing never really worked for me in the televised series, but Big Finish has made me appreciate Nyssa a lot more. There's a tragedy to her character that was never even touched upon in the '80s, but has been explored on audio as well as it is here. The sophistication of Ness' characterisation is such that the oddest aspect of Nyssa is that she wears trousers. Keeping a perspective on events is such an important thing. It's hard to describe, but you know when it's done right, and it's undeniably right in Tip of the Tongue. As already stated, more from the Ness versions of the Doctor and Nyssa would be received with no complaints from me.

There are interesting parallels to be drawn with Nazi Germany throughout Tip of the Tongue. The universal submission to Mr Acklin could be seen as a scaled-down version of Hitler's lebensraum policy, and the xenophobia of the Dipthodat to the party in question. It is also true that many European leaders sucked up to Hitler before the war because he was so powerful and influential, even if they didn't believe in his policies or views. This is mirrored in Annabelle's popularity at the school, and in the way Principal Marshall treats her. Ness fills in these gaps very effectively and succinctly, without ever being disrespectful to the groups involved. It is this kind of storytelling that sets some writers apart from the rest. Another comparison that could be drawn is with the slave race the Veritans. It could be said that they are downtrodden and abused in the same way as the Germans did the Jews. This connection is made stronger by the fact that Jonny feels excluded for being a Jew in a town of Protestants.

Overall, a really enjoyable story - definitely the most of the five I've read so far. It's a smart move to make the main characters of a children's book children, and Patrick Ness manages to create such believable characters. This is also true of the very minor figures. They feature for perhaps only a line or paragraph, but almost instantly you feel like you know them so well. It's a real talent that Ness has, and continuing in the established tradition, I've never come across his work before. Every scene is beautifully painted and I'd love to spend more time in the company of any of these characters as he makes them all so fantastically personable. 

I really wasn't looking forward to reading this one after the Kilimanjaro that was The Roots of Evil, but I read this in a single sitting. I think that speaks volumes given that it took me about five weeks to make it through Philip Reeve's contribution, but this was wrapped up in under an hour. It has re-energised me for the range (and the next story for me to review, Fanfare for the Common Men, featuring the same crew) and the only fear now is that none of the six remaining installments will live up to this. I blame Reeve for setting me so far behind schedule, and thank Ness for reminding me why I started this whole thing again. Tip of the Tongue is a beautiful tale, and has a poignant last line. It really feels like Ness has seen the Fifth Doctor's era as he captures its spirit so successfully. Excellent.

In a Nutshell: Essential reading, especially for non-fans of the Davison era.

You can buy Tip of the Tongue as an eBook here, or as part of the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories collection here.

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