Review: The Lightning Catcher by Clare Weze

As soon as I saw the words 'giant with moths' I was hooked, although this is a mere hint at how freaky this sciency detective adventure gets, courtesy of fresh voice in kidlit Clare Weze. 

Alfie Bradley, an inquisitive bike-riding investigator, has just relocated with his family to the sleepy village of Folding Ford, but it's not quite the safe haven they expected with suspicious locals and a peculiar micro-climate that no one can explain. 

Icicles on hot summer days plus windless whirlwinds, Alfie and reluctant sidekick Sam are on high alert after sightings of strange meteorological phenomena. And when Alfie hunts for clues in the creepy no-go garden of ginormous moth-man Mr Clemm, he makes an electrifying discovery and powerful celestial connection that changes his perception of the natural world forever.

This is the first mid-grade I've read featuring a mixed-heritage brown-skinned boy. As a city boy adjusting to life in the rural North, Weze skillfully flags up the racial tension resulting from his arrival. Although race is not explicitly given as the reason, Alfie's skin clearly makes him a target, and he's constantly blamed for the weird goings-on in the village by busybody mouthpiece Mr Lombard. 

There's a strong theme of transportation, people and creatures being uprooted and placed in new environments, and Weze explores the disruption this causes in many ways, for example within the family relationships. Despite having only just moved to Folding Ford, Alfie's African dad works away in Sweden for long periods while English mum Dina focuses on building connections in their new community. Both parents are also preoccupied with teen sister Lily’s eating disorder, triggered by Year 8 bullying at her old school—the reason they moved in the first place. As a result, Dad and Mum are oblivious to Alfie's struggle to fit in, leading to resentment and well-drawn sibling conflicts.

Indeed Weze has a natural flair for realistic teen-speak which makes the interplay between Alfie and all of his peers very relatable. The first-person narration in a loosely journalistic form with pacy short chapters builds the intrigue deliciously, with the tension really heating up around page 82. Lots of mind-blowing scientific facts about animals, light, electricity, and space are woven into the story no doubt due to Weze's expertise in biomedical and environmental science, making great cross-curricular discussion points for children in upper KS2 and perhaps enabling conversations to enter the realms of the philosophical. 

Things take a much darker turn towards the end with a serious message about the detrimental impact of stereotyping and mistrusting Black children. At this point, I hankered a tad after the fun biking action and cosmic strangeness from earlier but, thankfully, the story does not end there — there is stellar healing to be had!

An intelligent, highly charged, imaginative novel where science and fiction mesh and fizz extraordinarily to create a weird and wonderful adventure.   

The Lightning Catcher is author Clare Weze's debut children's novel. Preorder from Bookshop. Out 13 May.

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