Archive for ‘children’s literature’

August 24, 2014

Tove Jansson, The Moomins and the Great Flood

Tove Jansson’s birth centenary was on August 9, and I thought a celebratory column might be appropriate. It’s been less than a year since I wrote about Fair Play (here) and I do try not to write about the same author too often, but this was clearly a special occasion.

While in London I also went to this small exhibition about her life and work; if I’d had time I’d have gone back just to look at one particular picture again. Recommended, if you can get there in the next three or so weeks.

 

**********************************************

Anniversaries are useful things. It is Tove Jansson’s birth centenary this week, and in celebration of her work a number of her books have been published or republished this year, and an exhibition currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. But this Jansson revival has been going on for some years now among English-language readers, ever since Sort Of Books republished some of her wonderful writing for adults (including Fair Play, discussed in this column in the past). Yet it’s as the writer and artist of the Moomin stories that Jansson is best known, and they are some of the finest children’s books ever written.

“It was the winter of war, in 1939. One’s work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures”. The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was begun the year the war broke out, set aside and completed the year it ended. It was also, for some reason, the last of the series to be translated into English; appearing in a limited edition in 2005, some years after Jansson’s death, and only widely available since 2012.

Moomintroll and his mother, Moominmamma, walk through the great forest in search of a place to build a home. The forest is dark and full of danger, the swamp is home to a giant Serpent, and Moominpappa has gone missing and they may never see him again. The world is vast and unknowable and terrifying, all they can hope for, as Moominmamma suggests, is that “we’re so small that we won’t be noticed if something dangerous comes along”. Jansson’s illustrations add to this effect; the moomins are so tiny, so fragile compared to the landscape around them, and when the serpent appears, the artwork suggests that the moomins are about the size of one of its eyeballs. They are subject to a storm, and to the flood of the title. They are never safe in their smallness.

The Moomins and the Great FloodThis vastness and bleakness is a part of the later Moomin books as well, particularly in Moominland Midwinter (my own favourite of the series). But in the later books there is generally the solidity and comfort of home and family. Here, Moominmamma may have dry socks in her bag, but there is no home to go to, the family is divided, and the world is full of unhappy things. “But you see, sir, it’s really all very sad. Moominpappa has disappeared, and we’re freezing and can’t get over this mountain to find the sunshine, and we haven’t anywhere to live,” says Tulippa the flower fairy to an old gentleman who is also lonely, though his mountain home is made of sweets.

Jansson’s short introduction, and the knowledge that the book was written during WWII make it difficult not to read it in that context. But this effect is enhanced by the artwork, which combines drawings of the style familiar to readers of the other books in the series with painted, sepia-tinged pieces that give the whole a quieter, elegiac feel.

But if there’s sadness, and fear, and a lack of safety, there are still other things in the world. Moominpappa is found safe and well, and has built a splendid home for them all. Disparate creatures, brought together by the ravages of the flood, help one another. Tulippa finds a home in a lighthouse, guiding other lost creatures to safety. In the face of awful things “one’s work [stands] still”, as Jansson puts it. The more I read the Moomin books, the more I value their kindness, their sense that if all we have to hold on to are spontaneous acts of kindness, of generosity, of willingness to make homes and open them those who need them, that these things may –almost—be enough.

**********************************************

 

June 23, 2014

William Sutcliffe, The Wall

A mere couple of hours before the award is announced I come to the last book on the Carnegie list.

 

As has probably become clear over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’m suspicious (usually with good reason) of issue books by outsiders. William Sutcliffe’s The Wall is about the Israeli occupation (apparently Sutcliffe describes himself as a Jewish Atheist) but it also comes with an approving blurb from Raja Shehadeh, the author of Palestinian Walks, which seemed promising.

I don’t think The Wall ever actually uses the words “Israel” or “Palestine”, but unless the child reading it is genuinely unaware of the existence of either (it’s recommended for children aged 11+, for what that’s worth) it’s so obvious as to not need stating. Joshua lives in a new settlement near the Wall between his own people and the others. Travel between the two areas is carefully regulated and all around him Joshua hears about how unsafe he is, how he and those around him are constantly under threat of attack. Then one day he finds a way to cross the wall and sees what conditions on the other side are like.

It’s almost an anti- portal fantasy. Joshua finds his secret tunnel, and is continually drawn back, but the other side is not exactly filled with friendly talking animals who think he’s special and want to give him tea. He is in danger all the time he’s there, and eventually is permanently disabled as a result of his injuries.

It’s tempting to read The Wall alongside Ghost Hawk, and the two do fit neatly into what feels like an established genre of children forming friendships across conflict lines. Where I think The Wall wins out on this front is in its highlighting of how deeply fraught these friendships are (since half of Cooper’s pair is dead for most of their acquaintance the question doesn’t really arise). As a direct result of Joshua’s association with Leila’s family, her father is brutally beaten, his health deteriorates and the family garden that means so much to him is destroyed. Joshua is forced to learn that his good intentions mean very little when set against the vastness of this disparity in power. And yet these relationships are worth something. Joshua and Leila’s friendship feels rather perfunctory, but his bond with her father, for whom he digs the garden, tries to save the trees, risks his life, is difficult, but to both characters very real.

Another way in which the two books are similar is in their family structures. Both Joshua and Cooper’s John have widowed mothers who marry abusive religious fundamentalists who don’t really see the other side as human. I have to say I’m a bit tired of this. I have no personal stake in defending religion against denigration, I’m an atheist myself. But bad religious types have showed up in the last three books on this shortlist that I’ve read and Liev, Joshua’s mother’s partner, is far from rational in his hate. To the extent that: “His cheeks are flushed and his breath is short. Two off-white curls of foamy spittle have settled in the corners of his mouth.”

I may not have a stake in defending religion, but I do have one in the idea that children’s lit can depict a world that is vast and morally complex and in which, if there were no religions (thank you John Lennon) everything would not magically come right. There are enough people who support Israel’s actions who are not conveniently foaming at the mouth; to refuse to engage with that fact is to ignore most of the problem. Joshua’s mother offers a potential candidate to undo this, but we’re never sure how much of her stated hatred for the Palestinians is toeing the party line for peace within the home.

That it’s all filtered through Joshua’s consciousness is probably an indicator of Sutcliffe’s intended audience, or possibly of the author’s own experience learning the full extent of the problem. Joshua’s ignorance, a consequence of his privilege, might be read to parallel the hypothetical reader’s education. But there’s power in operation even at the level of narrative—the consequences of these events are painful and awful for Joshua but we know his story. Part of his privilege over the Palestinian characters is the privilege of narrative. I don’t know if Sutcliffe intended this to be part of the point, but I think it’s an important one.

 

 

As I write this, the Carnegie Awards ceremony is in progress. I’m not going to try and predict a winner, but I know what I’m rooting for. I’d be quite happy for Julie Berry, Kevin Brooks or Katherine Rundell to win, and William Sutcliffe and Anne Fine’s books are both good, but Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy is perfect; I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t win this, but I will be disappointed.

 

 

June 23, 2014

Julie Berry, All The Truth That’s In Me

The penultimate part of my Carnegie Award shortlist readthrough.

A trigger warning for rape might be necessary. (There are also spoilers, as always)

 

Apparently Julie Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me began as an experiment in writing in the second person. I expected this stylistic choice to feel more forced (certainly more visible) than it does—but to me it flowed quite naturally. It does raise questions about the book’s framing narrative; the context in which Judith is addressing the story to Lucas and where this telling exists, chronologically in relation to the story weren’t clear to me. I mention this because one of the official criteria upon which the Carnegie is to be judged (not that this series of posts has paid much attention to those criteria) is control over plot, and in this instance I’m not sure that control is fully exhibited.

All The Truth That’s In Me is set in what feels like a puritan settlement called Roswell Station. Berry deliberately omits real detail, so apart from the general mood of things this could be any settler colony of history or fantasy. A couple of years before the story opens two young girls, Judith and Lottie, went missing. Lottie’s body was found in the river shortly afterwards. Now Judith has returned, her tongue cut out, unable to tell what has happened to her or who is responsible.

In a sense, then, this is a murder mystery told by the only person (other than the murderer, obviously) who knows what has happened. In most books this would require some pretty elaborate narrative strategies for concealing and revealing information. I don’t see them here, and yet somehow the whole thing works. For much of the book we’re led to believe that the villain of the piece is Ezra, the father of Judith’s childhood sweetheart Lucas. The village believe Ezra to be dead; as the novel progresses we learn that he is not, and not as straightforwardly villainous as he appears at first to be—though that still leaves him plenty of villainy.

As the novel progresses we see Judith’s increasing urge to communicate, and her finding ways to do so. An attempt to learn how to read is thwarted by her mother, but she finds an excuse to go to school with her brother—where the schoolmaster sexually harasses her (it’s all rather grim). She befriends another young woman, and in her finds a friend in front of whom she’s not afraid to attempt to speak. Among the things the novel does extremely well are these small personal relationships and character sketches. Judith’s relationships with her brother and mother, female friendship and solidarity when they are needed, people who are not the main couple but who care for one another deeply.

Her relationship with Lucas I was occasionally less sure about, if only because it’s easy to be tired of these always-meant-to-be romances in fiction. It’s nice, however, to see young women’s desire placed at the centre of a narrative—and it’s almost refreshing when she does a sort of reverse-Twilight and creepily snuggles down to lie under a blanket with him while he’s asleep.

At more than one point we’re asked to consider how this relationship can have a future when first we, then Lucas, believe his father to have raped and killed one girl and mutilated another—a shadow like this one is bound to hang over a relationship. Yet the big twist at the end when Judith finds her voice does away with this particular concern. Ezra is not Lottie’s killer or Judith’s torturer after all.

It’s this ending that disappoints me a little, coming after what is mostly an excellent novel. Everything is made easy for the reader—the villains is a religion-obsessed sexual predator, Judith’s lover’s father turns out to be her protector (so awful are many of the other men in the book that Ezra’s choices to kidnap Judith for her safety, struggle not to rape her for two years, and finally to cut out her tongue and send her home when the stress of not raping her grows too great are made to sound positively benign in comparison—this is not treated as a cloud that will hang over the characters), Lucas has loved her all along.

Ending aside, though, this is a strong, often beautiful book. It’s not my choice for the award, but would be a worthy winner.

June 16, 2014

Rebecca Stead, Liar & Spy

 

The fifth in this series of posts about the Carnegie shortlist. At the time of writing I’ve read all but one of the books on the list and I have a very clear favourite. This is it.

Georges (the “s” because his parents really like Georges Seurat) is twelve. His family have had to move into a smaller apartment since his father lost his job; his mother, a nurse, is always at the hospital; the weird boy upstairs has involved him in a plot to thwart a possible murderer; he’s being bullied at school. It’s not the best of times. Worst of all, looming in the immediate future is the Science Unit of Destiny’s taste test, which will probably prove to the world that Georges is a freak.

One of the many things I like about Liar & Spy is how seriously it takes its concerns. In the context of the rest of the Carnegie list, those concerns may seem quite trivial, but even within this book there’s a constant tension between the big and small pictures (Stead’s use of pointillism is not exactly subtle) and it, and we, come down on the side of small things mattering very much in context. The book treats events as seriously as they loom in Georges’ perspective, and it’s a form of respect for child readers and child characters that I admire very much.

Late in the book Safer, the boy upstairs and Georges’ spy club companion, blurts out that he knows Georges’ secret and has known all along. Georges, understandably, does not take this well. Soon after, Safer starts again, beginning by sharing his own secret. It’s one of several moments in the book where you see young people figuring out how it is that one relates to others, which barriers we maintain and which ones we breach, how trust and vulnerability are reciprocal. This whole business of human interaction.

And I speak of secrets because naturally (with a title like that!) Georges has them. As an older reader I’m trained to notice omissions; both Georges’ and Safer’s accounts of themselves have important holes in them. The only surprise for me was in how not-heartbreaking the big reveal was (I spent much of the book concerned that the absent mother was really dead, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that she wasn’t). This isn’t meant for a criticism of the book, and I have no way of knowing how a less suspicious reader might encounter this twist. But being aware of what was left out was a large part of my appreciation for the book’s structure, and that appreciation increased when all was revealed at the end. Everything fits together so well, and the whole thing really rewards time spent dwelling on it.

It’s still less complex than Stead’s previous novel, When You Reach Me, which also feels slightly older (though the characters are about the same age, from what I remember of it). But they’re both set in apartment buildings in a New York that is full of summer evenings and personal relationships with neighbours and shopkeepers and there’s such a strong sense of place (apparently the author is drawing a lot on her own childhood homes) that it’s tempting to see them both as existing in the same universe.

Liar & Spy is skilful and kind and deadpan funny and just so good. I don’t know if it has a chance at winning the award, with a shortlist so filled with big, impressive names (if not impressive books) but it clearly should.

June 13, 2014

Katherine Rundell, Rooftoppers

The fourth in this series of posts about this year’s Carnegie shortlist.

I’ve ranted spoken elsewhere about the irritating persistence of the idea that literature (and film, and art in general) must be grim to speak of important things. And that good children’s literature must be about important Issues. This shortlist is quite heavy on both grimness and issues. Rundell’s Rooftoppers, though, is pure froth, and comes as a welcome diversion from some of the rest.

Set in an alternate-Victorian timeline (in that it didn’t feel particularly faithful to history but did feel quite faithful in tone to, eg., Joan Aiken), it is the story of Sophie, shipwrecked as a child and found floating in a cello case by Charles, an eccentric bachelor. Sophie grows up (despite Charles sometimes clothing, and only occasionally feeding her) believing that she remembers her mother and that said mother might still be alive. So when Miss Eliot, who works for the government and finds Charles’ parenting methods as dubious as I do, has him declared unfit to raise a child, Charles and Sophie escape to Paris to look for Sophie’s mother. In Paris Sophie meets the sky-treaders, orphans who have escaped the state system to live on the city’s rooftops.

There’s something very classic children’s book about all of this. I’ve mentioned Aiken already, there’s also a healthy dose of Streatfeild, possibly some E. Nesbit. Which isn’t to call Rooftoppers derivative of those books, merely to place it in that tradition. It is a little too familiar at times, though; the whimsy of Charles, the fact that state oppression manifests itself in trying to keep Sophie in skirts rather than trousers.

I’ve seen reviews comparing Rooftoppers to a Disney movie and it’s easy to see it working as an animated film. It’s warm and whimsical and visually has so much potential—there’s a scene about halfway through in which Sophie and her friend Matteo are standing on a tightrope high above the street and calling to and befriending birds, and it’s magical.

There are minor annoyances; structure, which should be a major annoyance. A lot of plot threads are picked up and dropped; the possibility that the shipwreck at the beginning of the book was a deliberate one, the history of the sky-treaders and gariers, the suggestion that Sophie’s mother might have been a sky-treader herself at one time, the larger question of how this whole system works (this is my inner SF fan talking, I suspect). Obviously no one’s suggesting that everything in a book needs to be explained, but there’s a difference between the sort of invoking-and-leaving that fleshes out a world by making it big and unquantifiable and full of stories and the sort that suggests that something has been invented only to service the plot and let’s not talk about it again, and I’m not sure Rundell’s always on the right side of this. I was enjoying myself too much to care most of the time, but I refuse to be entirely charmed into uncriticalness.

I find myself wishing I’d read this alongside Anne Fine’s Blood Family, another book that concerns itself with the workings of child services (in Fine’s book a much more noble profession) and attitudes towards biological relations to whom one bears a physical resemblance, in ways that make for a hilarious contrast with Rooftoppers. (As an aside: Sophie’s hair, and that of her mother, are frequently described as “the colour of lightning”, which makes it very tempting to believe they have blue rinses.)

I described Rooftoppers above as “froth”. And as froth it is very welcome, but I do feel that the Carnegie ought to be reserved for something more substantial. As happy as this made me, I don’t think it made a lasting impression and don’t think I’ll be backing it to win—but I hope that movie happens.

June 12, 2014

Anne Fine, Blood Family

The third of a series of posts about the books on the Carnegie Award shortlist.

 

Eddie is a very young child, the son of a mother whose abusive partner has left her entirely unable to care for herself. They are rescued by social workers called in by a concerned neighbour, and Eddie is placed with foster parents, then adopted. Thanks in part to a pile of video recordings of an old television show he is better adjusted than anyone expects, and is able for some years to live a relatively normal, happy life. Then, in his teens, he recognises the face of his mother’s abuser in his own, realises that this was his biological father, and falls apart.

Blood Family is told through multiple perspectives, of both minor and major characters. Eddie himself, his family, the couple who fostered him; a wide supporting cast of social workers, teachers, psychiatrists. Only his parents are silent, in both cases for obvious reasons. This piecing together of multiple perspectives amounts to almost a lesson in how society functions, how different people in different circumstances fit together.

It all feels (speaking as a relative outsider to the British system) very thoroughly researched. A thing I like very much is how sharply observed it can be. Young Eddie’s early years in school, where he protects himself by copying what the other children are doing rather than make himself vulnerable by showing himself a stranger. Later in life, his discomfort with being around his mother for a long period, and his inability to communicate with her. The social workers who work out at what point he was taken out of school as a small child by determining whether he remembers pedalling toy cars or pushing them along with his feet. These are all small things that feel real. And I like the imperfection of Eddie’s adopted mother Natasha, and the quiet support of his sister Alice. I like that trauma iis both something you can get past and live normally and happily, and something that can rise to the surface at any moment and overwhelm you.

Looking at various reviews of the novel I see that many of them claim that it is tackling the nature/ nurture debate– and obviously this is signalled in the title and in the particular form that Eddie’s crisis takes. But I don’t think it is, particularly (and that’s fine because surely we’ve all reached the point where everyone is willing to admit that the answer is neither-both-it’s-complicated). I do think Blood Family is working around ideas of how we deal with our pasts and how far we can control our relationship with it, and I think it treats these questions in a nuanced, respectful way. Though the story of how we go through lives affected at different times by our prior selves is not one with a strong narrative arc.

Perhaps this is why I find myself not caring very much. Or perhaps it’s the format, with its breadth of perspectives that never has us spend much time with anyone (except Eddie, but even for him I was rarely more than lukewarm), or simply the fact of reading in the context of an award. I admire many things about Blood Family, and even (for what that’s worth) approve of its politics on the whole, but emotionally and intellectually I all but bounced off it. It’s good, and while I don’t think it’s the best book on the shortlist I wouldn’t be upset if it won. But it’s not a book I’ll be going back to.

June 10, 2014

Diana Wynne Jones, The Islands of Chaldea

Posted at Global Comment a few weeks ago.

 

**********************************************

Three Diana Wynne Jones books have been published since the author’s death in 2011, and I have bought each and mourned a little anew. There’s something particularly final, though, about The Islands of Chaldea, the author’s unfinished last book which has now been completed by her younger sister.

The titular Islands of Chaldea number four, all suspiciously reminiscent of the countries and topography and national clichés that make up the British Isles (the Wales equivalent is also a bit Mediterranean, presumably because Britain doesn’t offer enough diversity). Years before this story opens, the inhabitants of the island of Logra kidnapped the prince of all the islands and erected a magical wall between their own island and the others, with unfortunate trade and climate effects. Years of attempts to break the barrier have failed, until a prophecy that a Wise Woman of Skarr, travelling with a man from each of the islands, will be the one to bring it down. Aileen, our narrator and protagonist, travels through the islands with her aunt Beck (who doesnotlike being called a witch) a prince of Skarr, a priest from Bernica, and an awkward young Logran who was abandoned on the island of Skarr when the wall came up. Also on the journey are a disappearing cat and a wise parrot; and Moe the donkey, who doesn’t appear to have any supernatural powers.

In most ways, this is a classic quest novel. A band of companions, subjects of prophecy, travel through often-hostile terrain and face great danger, meet new companions on the way, eventually save the world. One of the best things about Diana Wynne Jones, though, has always been the use she makes of the reader’s knowledge of the genre. It’s more in evidence in her books for older readers but even here it works to transform what is often a generic plot to something that feels fresh. This is in large part due to Aileen’s voice, which treats the sublime and the ridiculous with the same matter-of-fact resignation. “Porridge is my Aunt Beck’s answer to everything,” she begins her story, and as ever it’s the simplest lines that are the most effective. “The next day, when we stopped for lunch, we were mobbed by donkeys”.

Aileen’s own romance is treated with the same prosaic quality. We know from the beginning that the young man she has set her sights on (“Although he doesn’t know it yet, I have chosen him to be my husband when the time comes and, until then, I feel free to admire him greatly in secret.”) is unworthy, and we are aware throughout of his deviation from the pattern of romantic hero.

It’s classically Diana Wynne Jones in other ways as well. Family is a source of both strength and pain in Jones’ books; family members are often genuinely villainous, sometimes (merely!) cruelly neglectful, and their failures to look after our child protagonists are treated as a matter of course. The Islands of Chaldea signals at least one of its villainous relatives disappointingly clearly, and it’s tempting to think that had Jones been able to complete her book she would have tempered things with less figurative moustache-twirling. Yet we’re also presented, in passing, with the grandmother who raised Aileen’s mother and aunt and forbade them dancing and music; with Aileen’s own mother, whose romantic tastes are both suspect and inconvenient for her child, and who is never reproached by the book or its characters for being a grown woman with priorities of her own.

And family, and community, and friendship, can provide strength and succour as well; the long line of Wise (and irascible, though that’s not in the title) Women of which Aileen is the youngest, generations of knowledge and tradition behind her. The Queen of the fairy-folk who instantly recognises Aileen for what she is, suggesting a world full of strong women who know and respect each other, even if that respect does not necessarily translate into liking. On her father’s side of the family Aileen finds a whole community of cousins and extended family. Aileen’s own quest is at least partly for her father, and if her feelings for him are rarely expressed, we’re never in any doubt that they’re there. And there’s the Lone Cat, which can turn invisible at will and is both powerful and comically ugly—it attaches itself to the party, and frequently we see Aileen reaching out to it for comfort that is given.

It’s tempting to treat this book as a sort of puzzle, and to try and work out which parts of it are Ursula and which Diana. In her afterword, Ursula Jones explains that her sister did not leave notes or discuss her work in progress, and that she tended to write stories in a linear fashion; the implication is that there is a single moment in the narrative before which everything is Diana’s and after which everything is Ursula trying to channel Diana. She also claims that no one has yet been able to spot the exact moment unprompted. It almost reads like a challenge, and if it is it’s a brave one to throw out to fans of her sister’s work. My own instinct is to attribute everything I like about the book to Diana Wynne Jones, turn a great author into an infallible one. It’s probably untrue and unfair to her sister. Yet to me the later sections of the book are among its weakest. Somewhere in the island of Bernica things begin to get a little slack, and the Logra sequences are oddly paced. Things fall into place in ways that are more predictable than one might like, and everyone is happy and important and of sufficiently noble birth.

But then we come to the final paragraphs of the story, which must be Ursula Jones’ work. We are introduced to an older Aileen, looking back at past events and pondering the changes which they brought. The book ends with an image of the adult Aileen occasionally sailing to visit the Lone Cat on his island. “I hear his cry from above me, and the Lone Cat, the ugliest cat I ever beheld, bounds gladly from pillar to pillar towards me. We stay a while with each other, then part.” It’s not entirely structurally sound—this older, wiser narrator has never been hinted at earlier in the book—but she knows as we do that things can’t always stay the same, that sometimes there are unavoidable reasons to be separated from the people we love, that life goes on.

Ursula Jones’ afterword to the book is beautiful, reminiscing about bedtime stories that were made up in parts, night by night, and read out up to the point where a young Diana had stopped writing. “It always duly turned up the next night, which is where the present day diverged so unhappily from our childhood past. This time, the next section couldn’t turn up. Her book had ended without an ending.” It’s rather a horrifying image, the unfinished story like an open wound.

When I heard of Diana Wynne Jones’ death in 2011 I immediately reached for one of her knottiest books, the flawed and brilliant Fire and Hemlock, and stayed up all night to read it in tribute. There’s nothing particularly knotty (or particularly brilliant) about The Islands of Chaldea. But whether it emanates from the author, her sister, or is something I’ve brought to the book myself, the whole thing seems to me to be infused with love and generosity. It begins with porridge and ends with bittersweet parting, and if it’s not the best thing either of its authors has written it is exactly what I needed it to be.

**********************************************

June 8, 2014

Kevin Brooks, The Bunker Diary

The second of a series of posts about this year’s Carnegie Award shortlist. As with all the books on this list, there are probably (definitely) spoilers ahead.

 

My copy of Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary has a quote from the book as part of its cover. “I thought he was blind—that’s how he got me”. It seems to promise the existence of a definite “he”, the villain of this particular piece. If so, it is not a promise the book is going to keep.

Linus is captured while trying to do a good deed, and taken to an underground bunker accessed only by an elevator that he cannot operate. There are six bedrooms and six empty notebooks (one of which becomes his diary, i.e. the book you’re reading), and as time passes five new captives join him. They are being observed constantly; they have to try to get along; occasionally they try to escape. Food sometimes arrives via the elevator and sometimes doesn’t, and sometimes they are punished or knocked unconscious by sleep gas for unknown reasons. Once a rabid Doberman comes down the lift and tries to kill them. We don’t know who the overseer of all of this is, unless it’s us—Linus’ diary is often addressed to a “you” that conflates his capture and his reader.

The diary format drives the plot forward in short, dated segments—Linus clings to control by trying to keep track of time before realising that this is hopeless—and its sense of a series of awful things coming one after the next. But, as one of the people with whom I read it complained, Linus isn’t young enough for his words to be linguistically interesting (as it would be if told in the voice of the much younger Jenny), and his teenage perspective only serves to absolve the book of certain biases. Linus is unfailingly good, Jenny is unfailingly kind. The attractive, career-driven Anja is selfish and shallow, Bird, who is fat*, is weak and horrible and the first to crack under the strain of their ordeal. However.

The Bunker Diary could be a comment on the relationship between reader and text (I’ll return to this), or a comment on reality TV, or on religion, or the fundamental unknowability of life (we’re here, we don’t know why things happen, who is in control, why a Doberman is trying to kill us). Brooks seems to be trying hard not to commit to any of these readings. This makes a resolution hard to come by; in rejecting all the potential solutions on offer, Brooks leaves himself very little room to do anything. And so Linus doesn’t find out why he’s here, he doesn’t save himself or Jenny; at the point where his diary ends it seems clear that he is doomed. There is no moment at which it all makes sense. That quote on the cover is either a red herring or just very badly chosen.

I think this might be quite important. There’s no shortage of narratives where a character is shut in an enclosed space, of course. But I think there’s something else that Brooks is doing here.

There’s a set of relations between reader and character, author and character, plot and character that we often take for granted because we’ve been telling stories for centuries and we’re used to them now. There is, for example, a sort of hierarchy of character disposability that comes into play with stories about death and destruction—protagonists rarely die because then the story would end midway with no resolution, but other characters must die so that we know the danger of death to be real. The Bunker Diary refuses this. If one character has to die, they all must; there can be no last-minute rescue for a favoured few. On this level at least, it is brutally democratic. Because we see Linus’ perspective, we see him more than once wondering what it is about him, as an individual, that may have led to his selection for this ordeal. The answer might be nothing at all.

Brooks explains on the Carnegie website that he refused to think about the who/why of the situation for fear that this would influence the way he wrote it. Even at the most basic level, then, the book resists the consolations of plot or closure. We are presented with an author who refuses to impose meaning or structure upon the events he depicts**. This makes The Bunker Diary pretty much the opposite of a novel, but at least it is committed to what it’s doing.

 

 

*The way in which Linus breaks down their characters is revealing. “We’re all something. I’m smart. Fred’s strong. Jenny’s kind. Anja’s beautiful. Bird’s … fat.”

**Penguin in their infinite wisdom have chosen to put the publisher’s logo at the beginning of each chapter of the kindle edition. This imposes a far more alarming possible narrative upon the story.

June 1, 2014

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Child’s Elephant

As some readers of this blog know, I’m currently working towards a PhD and am part of an English department that really likes its children’s literature. Some of us have been shadowing the Carnegie award shortlist for this year, and in a moment of poor judgement I decided to write about all of the books on the shortlist for this blog as well as for our official one (to which I will link when we have more on it). The winner will be announced on the 23rd of June, and I’m hoping to have written about all of the books by then. First, Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s The Child’s Elephant.

[There may be spoilers]

 

I may as well expose my personal biases at the outset: I came to The Child’s Elephant already wary. Because it was part of a Carnegie shortlist whose primary theme appeared to be Bad Things Happening; because it had an animal in the title and faithful animal companions in literature sometimes die; because it was a novel set in Africa by a non-African writer, and I’ve read far too many of those that are a mess of offensive clichés.

In Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s defence, the elephant does not die.

Bat, the protagonist (named after the flying rodent by “the white people with sky-coloured eyes”), and his friend Amuka find an orphaned baby elephant and bring her home to raise. Everyone in the village thinks this is a great idea (apparently their people have a historic affinity with elephants) and Meya is allowed to rampage around being cute and occasionally saving the village from snakes. Eventually she grows up and has to be taken back to the herd.

There’s probably something to be said about Campbell-Johnston’s decision to base her title on Rudyard Kipling, and the implications of this, but I refuse to say it.

Weak writing about Africa (the events of the plot suggest that this is Uganda, but the country’s name is mentioned nowhere in the text) often rests on one of two extremes. There’s Africa as wild, magical place full of innocent, happy villagers and wild animals, and then there’s Africa as home of awful news stories about war and starvation. The Child’s Elephant achieves both of these at various points. Soon after Meya has left the village, Bat and Muka are kidnapped … by Joseph Kony’s army. The “about the author” section explains that Campbell-Johnston learned about Kony as a leader writer for The Times—I only hope it wasn’t in 2012. At least the “about the author” section informs us that she has visited Uganda.

The children’s time in the Lord’s Resistance Army forms a relatively small portion of the book itself, which is in some ways a relief, and in others deeply unsatisfying. It’s closely observed and horrifying, if in a very news-report-y way, and then it ends and we’re allowed to move on. And perhaps it’s ridiculous to ask for more awfulness in a book that already contains plenty of violence and trauma, but I do think that if a book is going to invoke something painful it needs to give it its full weight. I’m not sure The Child’s Elephant does.

The main characters are given a sort of constructed naiveté that continues well into their maturity—between the ages of 7 and 15 or so Bat doesn’t seem to have aged at all, despite becoming the primary earner for his household, raising an animal to maturity, and having spent some time captive in the army. Amuka lives walking-distance from the town where there are electronics shops, yet is utterly baffled by the existence of television even after several visits. Puberty doesn’t seem to happen to anyone (except a sexually-threatening villain) until the book’s epilogue tells us that the main characters have married and had a child. What interiority Bat might have is always deferred—more than once we are told that he is overwhelmed by emotions that he can’t articulate, though not why the author, writing from his perspective, can’t articulate them either. All this makes for a set of flat stock characters; feisty, beautiful girl, wise and infinitely patient grandmother, sexually threatening bully, talkative, fat neighbour. The closest we get to character development (and the closest we get to trauma) comes in the form of Bat’s friend Gulu, who carries the weight of his own guilt over the awful things he has been forced to do, and who does not believe (and perhaps he’s right) that he’d be able to live a normal life after these experiences.

After all this, the final section of the book comes as something of a relief. The three children escape with some help from Meya the elephant and begin a long trek back home, starving and dehydrated. It’s almost dreamlike; partly due to the characters’ own lightheadedness, but partly also because some of the events it describes don’t entirely belong to the realm of the real. To me, this is a good thing; many of the novel’s flaws exist in the context of a larger tradition of writing the other, and an extra remove from reality can only be a good thing (though it doesn’t fix things). In any case, I found myself more reconciled to the book here than at any point in the previous pages.

But the best I can find to say about The Child’s Elephant is that it annoyed me less in its final third. It’s tempting to blame (and I do) a wider literary culture when I can find no reviews of the book that raise questions of representation at all—to the point that I almost convinced myself I was overreacting. But I read this book alongside a group of other people with an academic interest in children’s literature and to all of us it was glaring.

I wish I had been overreacting though.

 

April 13, 2014

Happy Families redux

Last weekend’s column, drawing rather heavily on this piece on Blyton’s families from a couple of years ago.

 

**********************************************

A young couple have twin children, male and female. Preferring boys to girls, they care far more for their son than for their daughter, so that even as a toddler the unloved child retreats into herself. When both the children are three years old the son dies, and the parents resent his sister for surviving. They allow her to forget that she ever had a brother, send her to boarding school when she is old enough, and choose never to visit or write, or even to send birthday cards.

There’s still something a bit transgressive about the idea of parents who don’t love their children—it is, for example, the aspect of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin that seems the most discussed. Parents are unlikely to admit even to having a favourite child. Mothers in particular are expected to be the source of magical, selfless love, and made monsters of when they fail to do so. Fairy tale retellings over time morph uncaring mothers into evil stepmothers to soften the blow.

The story above is not, however, from a literary work about damaged children, or if it is it’s an unlikely one. It is from Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School, and the life story of Joan Townsend, the best friend of that book’s protagonist.

Parents in the Blytonverse range from criminally negligent (oh, are you having an adventure again? they ask as their children once again entangle themselves with internationally-operating and well-armed gangs) to the openly villainous. The first of these is generally a narrative necessity; the second is rarer. The books often get dismissed as comfortable stories about comfortable middle-class children and most of the time this is true, yet occasionally something surfaces that makes one wonder if all is really as it seems.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the incident in The Naughtiest Girl in the School is not that Joan’s parents have been treating her badly for years. It is that, when Mrs Townsend explains to her daughter’s headmistresses that she wishes said daughter had died, everyone around her seems to accept this as normal. Even Joan herself understands and accepts her mother’s neglect once she has heard the facts.

Joan is not the only one of Blyton’s fictional children who has a lot to forgive her family. Barney, of the series of novels that begins with The Rockingdown Mystery, is the son of a circus girl and a man whose family, we are told, mistreated Barney’s mother until she ran away taking her child with her. Carlotta, of the St. Clare’s series of books, has a similar family history. Then there’s Margery, also of St Clare’s school, whose father wishes for sons and so sides with Margery’s stepmother (and the mother of his sons) against his daughter until her school friends intervene by writing to him to prove that she is worthy of his regard.

Childhood means not having power. We’re told that one reason baby animals (including baby humans) are cute is in order to make the adults look after them, since they are helpless to look after themselves. Children of all species are reliant on the benevolence of the adult world for mere survival. If they cannot make themselves loveable, they are doomed.

This is all rather more brutal and nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw than one expects from what are, let’s be honest, not very good books. But if you read Blyton’s fictional universe as one in which these truths are known and understood, where your dependence on your parents for survival is not buried in platitudes about loving families (or at least, not so deeply buried that it isn’t widely known and understood), a lot of things begin to make sense. Carlotta earns tips from her formidable grandmother when she is appropriately ladylike. Barney and his father and grandmother find each other and live happily ever after. Margery and her father are reconciled and presumably go home and determinedly act out happy familial relations. Joan forgives her mother—what were her alternatives?

**********************************************