Sunday, 19 November 2006

The Wish List, Eoin Colfer, 2003

THE WISH LIST, by Eoin Colfer, Penguin Viking, 2003, 168 pages, paperback, NZ$19.95.
ISBN 0-670-04058 4.

“Brilliant. Totally original” – Satan

Meg Finn is a name to put beside Huck Finn and Harry Potter. We need strong female characters in novels for young people, and Eoin Colfer has created an excellent one. Meg’s appeal is not limited by the fact that she is dead by page 9. In fact Meg becomes really interesting after she dies.

Since Meg was murdered by her accomplice, Belch, while robbing an elderly pensioner, she might not seem an ideal role model. In fact Satan is looking forward to using Meg’s talents to make Hell a worse place. Her use of a television set to punish her evil stepfather had been so fiendish that even Satan was impressed, “Brilliant. Totally original.” Meg, however, is not for burning. Her sins exactly match her good deeds and so she goes neither to Heaven nor Hell. Instead, she is sent back to Ireland.

In a deal worked out between St Peter and Beelzebub, Meg has to help her victim, Lowrie McCall, to carry out his last four wishes. This is where The Wish List moves from good to great. Not only is Meg trying to save her own soul; she also becomes deeply involved with Lowrie’s ambitions. They make an odd couple but when Meg finds she can occupy Lowrie’s body and read his thoughts, their relationship becomes simultaneously hilarious and poignant.

Here she is on Croke Park, trying to make Lowrie’s body kick a ball:
Meg licked Lowrie’s finger and stuck it into the wind. Then the taste of tobacco bit into the tastebuds she was inhabiting. ‘Oooh,’ she groaned, spitting on to the grass. Of course, being in possession of ancient nicotine-drenched lungs, quite a bit more stuff came up than she was expecting. ‘That’s disgusting. What’re you doing to yourself?’ …Residual memories erupted from the stands, urging long-retired teams to victory. All around her, shades of past players dodged, weaved and hacked the legs from under each other when the ref wasn’t looking…She could feel Lowrie’s heart pound with excitement. Finally, after fifty years, he was fulfilling a dream.”

Lowrie’s wishes are not easy to carry out and some aspects put his own soul in danger. Good and evil are real forces here, and the sequence where Lowrie moves from revenge-seeking to reconciliation is a microcosm of what Ireland needs.

The sparring match between Beelzebub and St Peter is amusing, but Colfer wisely spends very little time in Hell. He has fun hinting at the identity of its inhabitants, who include mime artists, lawyers, Oscar-winners, members of boy bands, and – thanks to Satan’s “own your own soul after a century” offer – computer experts.

There hasn’t been such a good novel about a young person’s redemption since Alan Bunn’s Water in the Blood, and there has never been a funnier one

Trevor Agnew

This review was first published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on June 7th 2003.

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