Random House 2011
Everyone knows Peter Pan; it’s the tale of a young boy who finds his way to a magical land, full of adventure and pirates, and as long as he remains there he will never grow up. It speaks to our sense of existential dread about aging and having to leave behind the care-free days of childhood for serious and tedious ones of adulthood. It’s a story about arrested development. Add in a traumatic childhood and a boarding school for mentally ill teenagers and you have Margot Mcgovern’s beautiful debut novel, Neverland.
Kit Learmonth is the orphaned daughter of a famous writer, whose fantastical stories about their island home filled her childhood with a sense of magic and wonder. But her parents deaths in a boat accident when she was twelve continues to haunt Kit. After an attempt to take her own life while at boarding school, Doc, her psychiatrist uncle and guardian, brings her back to her childhood home, which she has dubbed Neverland. However, it’s not the same as it once was, and as the magic starts to fade, she’s forced to re-examine her memories, revealing a darker reality.
This book extends far beyond simply a ‘Peter Pan’ retelling. Mixed in we have heavy references to Greek mythology with a healthy dose of modern day literary references, sex, drugs, romance, and a very important boat race.
Recently there has been a rise in YA novels which address mental illness and self-harm, and as issues that many young people struggle with. It’s always great when a book manages to depict these themes in a way that doesn’t dangerously romanticise mental illness, or trigger those who may already suffer. Neverland handles its self-harm and trauma in a measured and sympathetic way. In fact, all of the student-patients of the island are treated sensitively.
While Kit and her friends suffer a range of conditions, none of the characters are defined by their ailments. Their portrayals are free from stereotypes; the resident psychopath doesn’t come with a backstory of animal abuse and seems fairly capable of maintaining his friendships quite successfully, and the main drama for the bulimic character comes from her love life as opposed to an obsession with food. Most importantly, you’re never made to feel like these characters are intrinsically lesser beings because of psychiatric help.
In fact, every character in this book feels so layered and complex; even Kit’s dead parents come to life in her memories and the stories other people tell. You feel like you’re stepping into a fully formed world with history and presence and that’s not an easy feat.
I refuse to say that the Island is a character, because that’s the most cliché line in any piece of criticism, but Neverland does indeed feel like fully realised landscape of cliffs, secret bays, giant underwater sinkholes and the mystic depictions of this setting definitely add to what makes this story work.
Finally, this book is simply captivating. I read it all in two sessions – which would have been one of I hadn’t been forced to stop to go to work. Margot Mcgovern is a brilliant writer, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Words by Simone Corletto