Review: Bombmaker

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

Bombmaker by Claire McFall


At the Edinburgh Fringe festival two years ago a middle-aged stand-up comedienne joked that her husband’s penis had come to resemble a semi-colon: “It looks weird, I never use it…” Of course, that’s how the performer in question would transcribe her joke; a semi-colon connoisseur would likely separate the gag’s two-part punchline using the very punctuation mark so amusingly decried — It looks weird; I never use it. Why, exactly, is this correct? Well, it’s hard to say. I do not claim to be an expert on the matter. In fact, I only use semi-colons for two things: separating items in a list; and writing smart-alecky and vaguely ironic introductions to books in which dubious semi-colon use abounds. On that note, let me tell you about Claire McFall’s latest YA novel, Bombmaker.

Scottish teenager Lizzie both makes and explodes bombs for a London-based gang of renegade Celts. When not dodging security agents or fretting about her brutish boss, Lizzie enjoys separating clauses using the aforementioned mark. Again, I cannot speak with authority on what constitutes correct and incorrect usage. I do, though, claim the right to describe the following semi-colon as dubious:

Alexander kept me around because I had two skills he considered valuable. The first was my ability to get into — and out of — awkward places. I was small enough and agile enough to wriggle through windows or shimmy up walls, but more than that; I was invisible.

Trying to spice (not to say, splice) things up with semi-colons is evidently a trend in teen fiction at the moment. Monica Hesse employs the mischievous mark liberally in Burn, a YA novel that, like Bombmaker, centres on an intrepid young woman with talent and guile that belie her years. And Bombmaker Claire McFallspeaking of questionable punctuation, isn’t one who makes bombs a ‘bomb-maker’? If the publishers thought young adults could handle semi-colons, why shield them from a hyphen?

These points may seem minor, but inconsistencies at the micro level often lead to flaws at the macro. This is certainly the case in Bombmaker: the dodgy dots and dashes punctuate a plethora of flimsy premises and unpolished prose. How, for example, could a teenager become an expert in explosives? “It wasn’t an innate skill, I wasn’t born with the ability to create chaos and destruction; but the inner workings, delicate connections and wirings, just made sense to me.” Perhaps sensing that her explanation leaves just a bit too much to the imagination, Lizzie adds that she’s always enjoyed connect the dots, mazes, Rubik’s cubes and sudoku.

At this point you might be wondering who Lizzie is bombing and why. Here things get even more far-fetched. The ‘English’ government has disbanded the United Kingdom and put up walls to keep out its Celtic neighbours. All Welsh, Scottish and Irish people in England have two weeks to return to their homelands, after which time they face two stages of punishment. Those caught once earn a face tattoo; those caught twice are executed. What cataclysmic, fantastical, mind-boggling occurrence could possibly precipitate the descent into such brutal and Neolithic tribalism? “[T]he global economy collapsed.”

McFall does not waste time describing how something that has happened several times in living memory could lead to something approaching genocide. Instead, she skips to the moment five years hence when, with the UK “bankrupt, the people starving,” the English government calls in the stonemasons and tattoo artists. Unfortunately for England’s superior bloodline, the treacherous and conniving Celts have an ingenious solution to our policy of brick walls and face branding: they blow up the former and use make-up to hide the latter! Dash it all! How can we possibly compete against such criminal masterminds?

Were Scotland not about to have a referendum on its statehood one could simply laugh off this cluttered and colourless novel. As it is, the book’s preposterous postulations might brighten up the odd citizenship class; but no more than that.

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