Crocodile by Daniel Shand: Doing the best you can

Cover image Both the Betty Trask Prize and Awards once had the word romance in there somewhere which put me off a little: not my genre. That’s been long since dropped and given that winners include Strange Heart Beating, Elizabeth is Missing and We Need New Names, I’ve learned to take notice of it. Daniel Shand won the Award in 2016 for his first novel Fallow. His second, Crocodile, is about eleven-year-old Chloe, left with her grandparents for the summer holidays by her chaotic mother who is trying to get herself better.

Chloe’s heard nothing but criticism of her grandparents from Angie. They’ve not seen Chloe since she was an infant but welcome her into their home as best they can. She misses her mother, the evenings wrapped up together in a duvet in front of the TV watching something unsuitable for children, but not the string of boyfriends, the drunken sprees or foraging for food in near-empty cupboards. She’s careful with people, preparing a face for them. She finds her way into a self-proclaimed gang although Ally, Darryl and Chris get up to very little in the way of mischief. As the summer wears on, Chloe settles into her grandparents’ comfortable humdrum life loosening her grip on her determination to go back to her mother. The gang does what kids do until a game of Truth or Dare goes horribly wrong. When her mother turns up, furious to find that Chloe has met her Uncle Bob, she takes her daughter away with an old flame, a trip which ends badly laying bare the cause of Angie’s self-destructive lifestyle.

Shand tells Chloe’s story from her own perspective, wisely avoiding the tricky child narrator technique. She’s ‘the girl’, rarely Chloe, as if she’s distant even from herself. Her character is in stark contrast with the boys who become her friends, her mental state indicated by her catastrophic thinking – a small boy is envisaged flattened on the road, her mother’s boyfriend’s car overturned in a ditch. She’s always on guard, primed for disaster. All of this is deftly handled with a pleasing helping of striking descriptive language:

Men in aprons look up from ledgers and smile when they enter, door chiming, and the girl wonders what kind of storybook planet she’s washed up on

He wants them to like him. The girl shivers, seeing all her own inner workings projected up on the screen of this child

A great heavy summer storm, with the fuming clouds rolling in from the ocean and the air tasting like salt and something tangy

Carefully and intelligently, Shand uncovers the damage suffered by Angie and the effects that damage has had on Chloe despite her mother’s fierce but misguided efforts to protect her. It’s a quietly powerful novel, perceptive and compassionate, and about as far from romance as you can get.

10 thoughts on “Crocodile by Daniel Shand: Doing the best you can”

  1. Was this the harrowing read that it sounds? Having volunteered or worked with children and teenagers ever since I was thirteen I am always interested in books that take such as their focal point, but find those which deal with some level of abuse difficult to take.

  2. I finished reading Crocodile a couple of weeks ago and I have to say that I was very disappointed. I had high hopes for this novel as it had been recommended to me as being in the same genre as my own coming of age novel. As I write Scottish contemporary fiction, perhaps this is why I’m critical. I find that if I read a book set in a very different time or place it’s easier for me to suspend reality.

    However, with Crocodile, I had no sense of time or place. At first, I assumed that it was set maybe in the 70s or 80s as per your reference above with men wearing aprons and writing in ledgers in shops. But then there was mention of mobile phones etc so I realised it was more modern. Also, Scottish dialect is very specific to a region and there was no obvious indication from the dialogue as to which side of the country the novel was set.

    Of course I felt sympathetic to Chloe and felt that her character was well drawn and her interaction with her mum was effective. However, other characters, e.g Ally were like lazy caricatures. His boasting was a replica of Jay from the Inbetweeners and very cliched.

    I also didn’t find the grandparents age realistic. If Chloe is ten, and Angie had her as a teenager or in her early twenties, which would seem to fit her lifestyle, then what age would Chloe’s grandparents be? Certainly not the retired aged couple who struggle with mobility etc. They would more likely be in their 50s or 60s!

    Also, wearing my editor ‘hat’ I found the overuse of the word ‘just’ very annoying. It seemed to litter every page.

    The troubled relationship between a mother and daughter is an interesting theme but overall I feel a good editor would’ve have addressed the issues which spoilt the book for me. The ending left me unsatisfied too.

  3. Yes, one of my longest comments! I usually agree with your reviews of books which we’ve both read but this time we’ve had a different response. I really wanted to like this novel but the more I read, the more disappointed I was in the execution of a powerful theme. But as I said, if the same relationship had been portrayed in a historical context in a different country I might feel less critical.

    1. Perhaps that’s it. I’ll be interested to see if any other commentators have strong views on it. Oddly enough, it was one of those books I wasn’t sure about when I looked at the press release.

  4. This sounds a tough read but one that is sensitively written. I’d have to pick a time I felt strong enough for it but I’d be interested to read it for sure – the quotes you pulled are really inventive.

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