Naomi Wood is Sergeant Howie

The Wicker Man

Naomi Wood worked at a kids’ book publishers before she seriously started writing. She went to Paris to do the ‘living-in-a-garret’ thing where she wrote The Godless Boys: ‘nanny-ing in the afternoons, writing in the mornings, living on the 7th floor (no lift = year of great legs)’. Her debut is set in an alternative 1986, on an island where religion is outlawed. With shades of A Clockwork Orange, it is a tender, brutal tale of God, love and violence. Her next novel is ‘a fictional account of how Ernest Hemingway’s four wives – Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary – decided to walk away from their romance with the writer – or how Ernest himself walked out on them’. EITHNE FARRY

I wouldn’t like to think I have many of the qualities found in the stiff yet celibate Sergeant Howie in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Sgt Howie brings none of the humour nor any of the cheer to the bonkers ‘secret society’ of Summerisle.

And yet what he does bring to the Island is fresh curiosity.

Howie recognises that this is a society that he has no place in. He is excluded by the Islanders’ snarly sexuality as well as their non-cooperation. ‘Where is Rowan Morrison?’ he keeps on asking, only to be met with those irritatingly blank pagan faces.

Howie starts to ken that this society is keeping him out of a secret. And he learns, too, that it’s always harder to survive in a society when you’re the one left out of that secret.

When you watch The Wicker Man you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor figure. Among dancing nude Britt Ekland, masked children, bobbing hobby horses and the weirdest post-mistress this side of America, he is the vulnerable stranger – brash and cheerless, yes, but also persecuted by this viciously sensual community. No one who’s gone to a nightclub sober can feel entirely numb to his awkwardness.

That’s the thing: it doesn’t take a secret society, or a collection of Summerisle types, to make you feel a little baffled at the world. Sometimes, all it takes is looking at the minor societies around you: the weird unit of your family, or your happy band of friends, or your colleagues at work. I like to think I have some of Howie’s curiosity – and bafflement – in each part of the day, because the lives of others are so secret, and so intricate, and so baffling.

The only difference is my curiosity might not be articulated in so broad a brogue.

The Godless Boys is published by Picador.

Naomi Wood