Loranne Vella’s Rokit, published by Merlin Publishers, won the National Book Prize 2018 in the category Novels in Maltese and English against the run of play. The final results have been close to call until the very end of the adjudication deadline.
The odds were higher for other participants, and in particular Gioele Galea with the deep mystical and spiritual musings in his memoir Tħabbat Xtaqtek (Horizons). With this rare book in the Maltese literary canon, Galea gave a new voice to Maltese literature by producing a humbling, moving, deeply introspective spiritual memoir that is delivered in a poised and paternal writing away from the well-known patronising tones of similar literature.
Yet, albeit such a decision-making process is by definition a complex endeavour, particularly when it involves high-level competitors, the National Book Prize judges eventually had no doubts and bestowed the prize upon Loranne Vella.
With Rokit, Loranne Vella distinguished herself with yet another prize-winning novel that crosses genre boundaries between adult and young adults fiction. Vella is well-known for her trilogy It-Triloġija tal-Fiddien, a fantasy saga co-written with Simon Bartolo. Aimed at teenagers, Vella and Bartolo’s trilogy was an all-out bestseller that also captivated an adult audience. This time round, Loranne Vella wrote a novel for adults – which unwittingly reads like a coming-of-age novel for teenagers. Rokit has all the ingredients to make it an appealing read to teenagers and adults alike.
Benjamin, one of the main characters of the novel, leaves his house during his teenage years to join the resistance in a world fraught with chaos, war and climate catastrophe.
The story is based in the late 21st century Malta, which has by then reverted back to foreign subjugation. Malta begins to be gradually depopulated due to forced migration, and the island is beset with food-shortages, a total ban on electronic communications, and desert storms. The setting is dystopian, but the narrator of the story, who eventually reveals herself to be a protagonist in the story, keeps the tone of the narrative optimistic and friendly, leaving the reader hoping for a positive closure to the dramatic story.
Although the setting and the background of the story is dark and the characters live in oppressive conditions, they have close relationships and warm feelings towards each other while enjoying a certain degree of freedom throughout the story. In brief, by not offering an Orwellian dark atmosphere, Rokit proves instead to be a fantasy novel with an adventurous spirit, in which the element of fantasy manages to leave a glimmer of light in the darkness.
The narrator does not go into detail on the political, social and economic ramifications of the background setting. The narrator prefers to focus more on the development and emotions of the characters, thus making the novel even more accessible to young readers. As Benjamin comes of age, we learn of his feelings towards his father, his mother, his family, the world and himself. We get to know of his struggles.
Through the interesting interaction between characters, whose relationship unfold and develop along with the plot, the reader is led to a fantastic ending through a dystopian and chaotic labyrinth of events. The plot is enticing and not too overtly complex, which allows the reader to be curiously left wondering what happens next. Halfway through the novel the reader gets to finally encounter the rocket that gives the title to the novel, and to understand its important significance to the story.
Loranne Vella has established herself as one of the major Maltese novelists for teenagers and made her name in the fantasy genre – a somewhat endearing feat considering how challenging it may prove to be to win the attention of teenagers.
The adult fiction genre today is becoming increasingly difficult to tag as age brackets in novels tend to have looser age limits, and young readers tend to access adult fiction at an increasingly younger age. Loranne Vella has successfully created a fantasy genre for adults that is more accessible to young adults and a page-turner, proving once again that classifying a title into just one genre can straight-jacket it and limit its appeal.