Fossils by Alison Armstrong – a novel of the environment in all senses, from an interesting perspective

Fossils by Alison Armstrong

This is a novel about the power of storytelling. It is itself told from the perspective of a twelve year old girl who notices things, and is passionately concerned about the fate of the planet. Sherrie-Lee causes herself to be known as Zadie, and surrounds herself with deep thought about the environment, the estate where she lives, the house where she stays, but also the wider environment that animals have to live in. Introspective and immensely thoughtful, she thinks deeply about the probable fate of the animals on earth, how they will become extinct, how they cannot survive in a world of human thoughtlessness. Their fate seems to be enclosed in the fossils she collects, or at least the stones that resemble fossils, creatures forever encased in hard stone. 

The book begins with an unusual incident, a failed bank robbery, but it appears to be a catalyst for her to make a difference to her difficult situation. Her home, her family, is dysfunctional, with an absent father, a mother seemingly dependent on painkillers, an older sister who is permanently cross with her, and a younger brother who is definitely on the autistic spectrum. Sherrie- Lee is obviously a clever person, with some success at school but aware that she is regarded as different, not only for her challenging home life, but also because she is different. Her interest is in story telling, a skill she is determined to cultivate, as a way of making her way in the world, of coping with difficult situations, of helping her brother Joshy when he struggles to understand the world. Inspired by the visit of a professional storyteller to her school, she wants to construct a bank of stories that will support her in every way, fables, not necessarily with a message, but with a meaning. 

This author has a real gift for picking up on the small details which others may dismiss as mundane, but which in her hands become part of an atmosphere, surroundings which contribute to the whole. The focus throughout the book is on Sherrie-Lee, what she thinks, her plan, her stories both spoken and unspoken. We see virtually every other character from her perspective, what she thinks of them, what she thinks motivates them. Thus there is the innocence of a twelve year old contrasted with the suspicion of a girl who has walked the streets alone, dealt with people and issues far beyond her age. Sherrie-Lee is a character of contrasts like everyone else, but she sees the world in a particular way, with patterns, deductions and stories. Sometimes she hides skillfully behind a bank of lies, perhaps what she sees as stories, but she is always honest with herself.

Alison Armstrong has constructed a novel which allows a passionate, non- jaded reaction to the problems of environment and the fragility of the natural world. Sherrie- Lee visits the library, or at least refers to her regular visits, an environment she feels comfortable in, with blue haired Claire, the librarian. The library is important in Sherrie-Lee’s life, a safe space where she can read and absorb the information in the non fiction books that she loves, where she can learn facts about the green spaces which she studies, the wild life she may encounter. This is a consistent fact about this contradictory girl, that she can consider those facts even in grim times.

Altogether this is a memorable book for its incredible perspective on the world and the environment both on macro and micro levels. The choice of such a young main character means that an earnest concern can be expressed without all the learned reservations of adulthood. Sherrie-Lee’s intensity is conveyed well and consistently throughout this novel with a real observational flair. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel.