“The Monkey’s Wedding” is a phrase I’d never heard before, but apparently it exists in multiple languages to describe one of my favourite things in the world. “Sunshine viewed through rain, or the rain seen through the sun’s rays”, according to Aiken. Or sunshower, but I tend, MadeleineBassetlike, to call it “rainbow weather” and show an alarming tendency to skip.
My short piece on Aiken’s collection for last week’s Left of Cool was extracted from this slightly longer one.
Joan Aiken‘s The Last Slice of Rainbow collection was probably the first book I borrowed and never gave back. People who own a lot of books probably know that this happens all the time. There are some you ‘forgot’ you’d taken; some missing from your own shelves because they were lent out and never returned. They may leave permanent gaps, or you might buy (and lose) them again. Some books never stay long. Some you will never allow out of the room except in case of a fire. Eventually you set your own boundaries, but there’s always the sense that the ownership of books is a little amorphous. Aiken was my first crime, but she also taught me this.
She taught me another thing too; a kind of alienation from the text that is (I think) what made me a fan of the sorts of books that I love. Her stories take for granted the most uncanny events, treating them as mere background for human drama and all the awkward, funny ways in which we exist around one another. Aiken is where I begin; she may not have taught me to read (that was Pat Posner’s Bashful the Clumsy Bear) but she made me a reader. She’d have made me a writer too, if I could have been – of all the writers I love, it’s Aiken (and Garner, who I discovered later) I’ve most wished to imitate.
Aiken is best known for her children’s books, particularly the brilliant alt-historical sequence that begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. But she wrote psychological thrillers, ghost stories, even Jane Austen continuations and companion novels..
Since her death in 2004, two new collections of her work have been published. The first, The Serial Garden, collected all of her Armitage family stories. The second was a collection of short stories for adults, titled The Monkey’s Wedding. Both are a source of joy to me; every new Aiken book is a gift.
The Monkey’s Wedding starts with “A Mermaid Too Many”, a story in which a sailor’s attempts to sell or give away a mermaid he has brought home (his partner has refused to live in the same house as it) are foregrounded so that the fact that the mermaid even exists is treated as commonplace. “The Sale of Midsummer” involves a village that is rumoured only to exist for three days of the year, and that is filled with interlocking and contradictory stories about the beginnings of this myth. In “Water of Youth”, a single bottle of this mysterious liquid changes the lives of a number of people connected to the town.
Some stories are outrightly supernatural, like “Reading in Bed”, which involves a visit from the Devil, and “Second Thoughts” in which a priest is reincarnated as a cat, and proceeds to indulge in all the sins his previous career prevented. “The Magnesia Tree” is a horror story about the relationship between a writer and a tree, made horrible by the unobtrusive way in which the victim leaves the story. “Wee Robin” involves a not-very-scary ghost.
“Hair” is another horror story but not necessarily a supernatural one, about the relationship between the matriarch of a family and her various dependants. Even where Aiken’s stories contain no element of the fantastic al, they seem that way. The family in “Harp Music” live in a bus in a field; the protagonist of “Octopi in the Sky” hallucinates cephalopods. The title character of “Girl in a Whirl” rides bikes across tightropes. In “The Fluttering Thing” a man given a trapped genie and the power to demand a wish a day chooses instead to release it out of human decency. The seller of the water of youth wants to buy his wife a new grand piano, for “though we stood the legs of her Otway in four pans of kerosene, the termites ate it away until nothing remained but the keys”.
In Aiken stories, the most momentuous events are treated in the most deadpan of ways. “Honeymarooned” opens with a woman being swept off a ship by a wave and carried away without anyone noticing – the text explains this matter-of-factly, within a paragraph, before getting on with the story. Later in the same tale the characters greet with unconcern the imminent end of the human race (caused by an uprising of communist mice). A character’s nearly drowning to death in a vat of stout is a mere footnote to “Octopi in the Sky”. In “Wee Robin” a magic bathmat is “such an unsuitable gift for a four-year-old!” And stories never go where you expect, and they end abruptly or not at all; there’s rarely a traditional arc or sense of resolution. “No moral to this story, you will be saying, and I am afraid it is true.”
If Aiken is noncommittal where wonders are concerned, her language can elevate the most mundane. “Back to his castle then, poor Mr Richards, to live out his final years with owls and ink, in an everlasting third act of spiderwebs” she says, of one unfortunate character. Of another, that “the reverend Paul’s saintliness had been somewhat blunted by the cathood which had been superimposed upon it.”
Aiken’s shifts between the strange and the mundane caught me when I was five or six and made me a reader for life. The Monkey’s Wedding is a fine introduction to her work – and may very well ensnare you forever.