Raphael, Gardo and Rat are three self-proclaimed ‘dumpsite boys’. They scrape a living on the scrap heaps of Behala, sifting through the trash every day in the hope of finding something they can sell on. Day to day survival is a real struggle, and the boys prospects are grim. Then, one day, they stumble across something in the trash that has the potential to change their lives forever. But their decision to hold on to it invites all sorts of danger, and the boys are soon drawn in to a very deadly game indeed.Trash is a classic example of an exciting sounding story let down by a flat writing style and ill-advised narrative devices. There are really powerful moments in Mulligan’s book, such as when Raphael gets interrogated by the police, and when Gardo takes English volunteer Olivia to a Filipino prison. The story in itself is pacy enough, and young readers will definitely learn a lot from the scenes of extreme poverty and squalor. But for a novel to be good, it has to have more than a good story. And I’m afraid to say too many principles of good fiction writing are not in evidence here.
The constant change in POV is irritating for one thing. To write from a variety of point of views is a real challenge in third person, let alone first. So when this novel clumsily leaps from one point of view to the next, it gets in the way of reader empathy. A lot of the narratives don’t add anything to the story. All of them begin in exactly the same way (‘Gardo here,’ ‘Father Juilliard again’, etc), and the narrative voices of each can become rather hard to distinguish. This would’ve worked much better if it was restricted to the boys’ point of view, as it is their story after all. As it stands, there are too many passages that are all too easy to skim read.The other major issue is that the style of writing is not particularly good. All the action is described in a play by play manner. I’m not suggesting that this should have flowery purple prose embroidering every sentence, but sentence after sentence of matter of fact description just looks amateurish, and, to repeat myself, makes each supposed individual narrative voice too similar to the rest. This can only spell bad news for detailed characterisation. Worse still, so much of the action is signposted, and the reader is often told what to think and when: e.g. ‘This is Raphael again, and now it gets serious’. Oh please! You’re supposed to build up the suspense and show us the effect on the characters we’re following, not drop an anvil of tell on our heads.
I was expecting so much more from this: the glowing reviews that fill the inside covers suggest this is some sort of masterpiece, and it has been shortlisted for the Carnegie medal after all. It may well triumph when the winner is announced in a few days’ time. So this is assuredly a minority opinion review; and that’s just it, this is only my opinion. But it feels like people are praising it as an outstanding book because it deals with important themes such as political corruption, friendship, moral choices and their consequences, environmental concerns, among others. All well and good. But it’s supposed to be a cracking story well told, above all else. I’m afraid that, for me, Trash is found badly wanting in that regard.