Nine-year-old Ben isn’t necessarily a bad kid. He just does things that aren’t very good. He torments his younger sister Sophie, has no regard for the property of others, and is otherwise willful and inconsiderate. His mother sends him to his grandfather’s house one day as punishment, and Ben isn’t contrite for what he’s done. But all that is about to change.

In the award-winning YA novel, Beyond Dark Waters by British writer Des Birch, everything is connected; actions have consequences that affect everything else. While on an errand for his grandfather, Ben climbs an old oak tree by the river to carve his initials in its bark. He loses his grip, falls out of the tree and loses consciousness. When he opens his eyes, he is underwater looking up at a huge otter. Strangely, Ben is able to breathe in this new environment.

A SHAPE-SHIFTING ODYSSEY

So begins the boy’s transformation — both figuratively and literally. As the otter explains, he’s not just a boy, he’s a Quinling:

“Every once in a while, nature chooses a creature from one species to enter into five other species. … This creature is to be given the opportunity to live as another creature for a time. Then when it has learned what it has to learn, it will live as another creature until it has lived as five different creatures. …That way it can go back and teach its own kind how best to get on with other species.”

We follow Ben as he learns key lessons at each phase of his shape-shifting odyssey. He lives for a time as various forms of life populating the lake-like widening of the river into which he has fallen — a bug, two species of fish, and two forms of vegetation. He is also forced to reckon with previous misdeeds, including dropping a half-full can of paint into the river earlier that day, an act that will have serious consequences for his newfound friends.

Ben’s adventures lead him into situations most kids eventually encounter: bullying, prejudice, substance abuse. He gets involved in social conflict among the creatures of the river, and must struggle to learn lessons of self-sacrifice and cooperation as he experiences an ecosystem from various vantage points, and increasing levels of maturity and responsibility. 

FUNNY, FASCINATING AND IMAGINATIVE

As a narrator and protagonist, Ben is relatable and entertaining. His observations are often funny and are utterly believable coming as they do from a nine year old. This would be enough to recommend the book, but there’s something deeper at play here that I believe elevates this work to the ranks of literary fiction. 

I was struck by not only Ben’s classical transformation of character through the rights of passage that comprise the story, but also by the way the reader is transported into the bodies and minds of the various species he becomes. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a fish or a tree, you are in for a treat. Here is just one of many evocative and inventive examples, taken from Ben’s experiences as a mayfly nymph shedding his exoskeleton for the first time:

“It was the strangest feeling I have ever experienced. Imagine being covered in a thin coating of plaster of Paris, and then bending at the waist. I twisted again and there was another crack. Finally I was able to kick off the last bits of my shell.”

Along the way, Ben interjects various interesting tidbits he remembers learning in school about biology and ecology. It’s clear that underneath his bad behavior and character flaws, he’s a bright boy with a curious mind.

THE MAKINGS OF A CLASSIC

I truly enjoyed this book and can easily see it becoming a favorite with many young adult readers. The story is fantastical without being overly complicated, trendy or pandering. Rather, it has all the trappings of a classic young adult book: imaginative situations, vivid descriptions, engaging characters, and a thought-provoking, well-developed theme.

Without revealing too much of the end, I can say that the book culminates in a moving vision of the interconnectedness of all life. As the otter herself says:

“There is only one world and we all live in it. What you do affects us just as much as what we do affects you. Let’s all just live together and help each other.”

Beyond Dark Waters is the first book of a trilogy that includes Above and Beyond Dark Waters and Somewhere Beyond Dark Waters.

Buy this book!

About Des Birch:

Des Birch was born in Limerick, Eire but moved to England when he was a baby. He moved from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk when he was ten, but attended a private school near Southampton. He has two children whom he has raised on his own since they were ten and eight respectively. He works in engineering but has gained a BSc and a Dip. Pol. Con. With the Open University. He also gained a TEFL diploma with which he spent two years teaching in Spain. Des now lives in Norwich with his wife Julie.