Archive for the ‘Fairy tale’ Category

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I do enjoy Tana French. Her writing style is simultaneously lyrical and languid, full of synaethesia; and, at the same time, credible and realistic.

And this, her second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a delight!

I love the way that it follows seamlessly on the heels of In The Woods and Operation Vestal – the investigation into Katy Devlin’s death in thst debut novel – was a ghostly presence throughout. But French switched narrators from the unreliable and, for me, uncredited Rob Ryan to his erstwhile partner, Cassie Maddox. 

And a small detail dropped into In The Woods becomes a critical plot point here: Maddock had worked in Undercover before she had transferred to Murder. In this novel, she is brought back to being undercover when the corpse of a girl who looks exactly like her is discovered. It is improbable. It stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief a little – but then French’s books always have that touch of the otherworldly about them anyway. She’s not wedded to the purely credible and mundane, which sets her apart from many crime writers. And as the dead girl was using an identity – Lexie Maddison – which Cassie had invented to go undercover with, her old boss Frank Mackey was called in and, through him, Cassie was brought in to go undercover as the dead girl. It’s nice to see Mackey again: a slightly clichéd to-hell-with-the-rules detective who bulldozer his way into the investigation, just as he does in The Secret Place.

The dead are often a very visceral lyn solid ground point in a detective novel: they are static, they are probed and opened up and explored. Here, Lexie Maddison is as ephemeral as the wind and as fluid as water: we only see her once before Cassie steps into her shoes and we unravel hints of an intriguing mercurial – and probably damaged – character. Impossible to grasp or to capture, flowing through the fingers of each character who tries.

And when Cassie does pick up Lexie’s life, we are introduced to another of French’s trademarks: an impenetrably close group of friends with whom the dead girl had been living and who Cassie has to infiltrate. Just like the cliques of girls in The Secret Place, the depiction of Lexie’s friends – Abby, Rafe, Daniel and Justin – is thrilling and enticing and unreal and so tempting. Living with each other in Daniel’s inherited manorial house, distant from both the local village and other students at Trinity College, they are impossibly and intimidatingly close. 

The other vast character in the novel – perhaps the biggest and most significant character – is Whitethorn House itself. The house in which Lexie and her friends live. It breathes and moves and speaks just as much as any other character. And its fate is perhaps more tragic than those of any of the others. The house is part-commune, part-home, part-sylvan fantasy, part-fairy tale castle and part-fortress and it looms over the whole novel carrying it’s own tragic and toxic history.

And when a writer like French has a character tell us that he heard a dead girl’s voice coming from the house, I’m less likely to dismiss it than with other writers.

 

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This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.

 

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This book might win the most striking cover award this year: the stunning autumnal russets and reds are gorgeous!

But you know what they say about judging books by their covers?

As a parent and as a teacher, we trot out that truism time and again but on what else are you going to judge a book? Well, the author is one other way and Ali Shaw was the author of The Girl With Glass Feet in 2010 and that was a book which has stayed with me hauntingly. The Trees looks like a heftier and heavier novel than that one – and I suppose length is as reliable a way of judging a book as any other – coming in at about 500 pages.

Just as with The Girl With Glass Feet, Ali Shaw’s The Trees inhabits the boundary between mythology and the mundane, between the fantastical and the real, between the magical and the ordinary. It is, I suppose, a magic realist novel although there is very little magic as such in it. A mythological realist novel perhaps. And the mythology does feel deliciously British: forests and trees and a return of the primal woodlands over which mankind has built and paved and lived. And a very abrupt and violent return of the forests:

Then the trees came.

The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and bucklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.
In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement.

Branches stilled amid the wreckage they had made. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, a suburb had lain, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins. Some of the trees were flickeringly lit by the strobe of dying electricity, others by the fires of vehicles that had burst into flames. The rest stood in darkness, their canopy a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.

The violence is, to be honest, rather muted and mainly directed at the fabric of humanity’s world rather than the humans in it. Reference is made to deaths and it’s usually fleeting; very few deaths are actually shown in any detail.

It’s almost as if the novel arose from one of the many what if writing prompts that float around the internet. The how and the why and details of the trees’ appearance is almost irrelevant; how people deal with their appearance matters. And Shaw chooses a small and discreet group of travellers: Adrien, a self-loathing cowardly English Teacher (and a small part of me wrankles at that choice of career for our non-hero); Hannah, a nature-loving mother and Seb, her tech-savvy son; and Hiroko, an enigmatic Japanese girl with a knack for using a slingshot.

Adrien, Hannah and Seb leave their devastated home town and trek through the forest, meeting Hiroko along the way, as well as wolves, endangered mushrooms and kirin, a mythical creature which seemed partly unicorn and partly a woolly rhino. As well as “whisperers”, tiny creatures made from leaves and twigs and moss which seem to haunt the forest and Adrien in particular. And something darker that lurks in the heart of the forest too.

Like many post-apocalyptic novels, the real threat to our main characters is from the other humans which they encounter rather than the wolves of the forest. In many ways, it feels a lot like The Walking Dead in parts: the forest is often just the backdrop, the people are the true horrors. How do you react when every social, societal and legal structure disappears overnight? Do you forge new bonds or do you reforge yourself and, if so, in whose image? What governs your behaviour when there is no judge but yourself?

Much of what I loved about The Girl With Glass Feet was the lyricism of Shaw’s language and there was less of that here. There was certainly a power to the language, especially in the more surreal vision that Adrien has of the earth and its creatures. But perhaps the quest structure, the driving narrative of the journey – in this case to reunite Adrien with his wife in Ireland – gave less opportunity for it. And I missed that and the intimacy of The Girl… The Trees has, by its nature, a global dimension which perhaps distracted a little from the character-driven prose of that earlier, first book. I liked the characters in general, although Adrien was a little tiresome and I wasn’t really convinced by his journey and Hiroko seemed a little two dimensionally inscrutable.

However, I am grumbling and nit-picking and I know it. It’s what us self-loathing English teachers do. This is a grand book and, despite the weighty length, a rapid read with a good pace. In fact, the modulation of chapter length was particularly effective.

But, no, a good cracking novel, touching on some of the mythological and fairy tale elements that I love.

Certainly good enough for me to be on the look out for the intervening book, The Man Who Rained.

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I am coming to adore Frances Hardinge!

I’ve only read this and Cuckoo Song to be fair, but there’s something about her
imagination and her writing which chimes with me: dark, intensely personal, yet somehow mythic at the same time. She captures a sense of wonder,  of terror, of awe which is simultaneously so childlike and so mature.

And she does write girls who are struggling to find their own identity really well!

Here, Hardinge branches away from contemporary fantasy to historic fiction with a fantastical edge. Perhaps magic realist. But not quite. She’s a hard writer to pigeonhole into a genre – as if that is ever a meaningful thing to do in any event! Anyway, the novel opens with Faith Sunderley consoling her brother Howard on a ferry to the island of Vale as her father,  Reverend Erasmus Sunderley – famed naturalist – and her mother Myrtle busy themselves elsewhere.

We are transported whole-heartedly into this provincial Victorian post-Darwinian world. Science strives against religion; women strive against patriarchy and each other; children strive to find themselves. Reputation and courage and a coquettish sexuality become the currency with which her characters compete.

The move to the island is shrouded in mystery for a large portion of the book, as is a mysterious plant brought along by Erasmus.

And we are introduced to the microcosm of the island: phrenologists,  photographers and prelates; scheming wives, a hint of a love that then did not dare say its name, ratting and archeology; the faithful, the faithless and the superstitious. All the details – especially perhaps those deliciously macabre details of the mocked up post-death photographs in a world without PhotoShop – were so utterly convincing.

And evocative.

Hints and teases of layers of symbolism lay behind almost every image in the book. Nothing ever pinned down by a clumsy exposition. The feeling I was left with is that, like the lie tree itself, these layers – perhaps these leaves – of subtle whispery layers of meaning would burn away with too much sunlight. Enjoy the teasing.  Enjoy the evocation. Don’t try to pin down a single meaning because you’ll lose so much more!

The mystery persists in the book until, that is, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderley dies and Faith discovers his notebooks and the fantastical truth: the plant feeds off lies and its fruits contain visions of truths. Her father’s big lie was a fraudulent skeleton of a nephilim; the truth he sought was of the nature of God and man.

Big topics for a purportedly young adult book!

The novel is – in part – a detective mystery seeking to uncover the truth of Erasmus’ death. It is a meditation on the power of narrative. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a multifaceted jewel. A pomegranate of a book.

There was so much to love in it! But what particularly moved me was Faith’s reconciliation with her mother: distance and coldness became active disgust on her father’s death; but, as Faith became more aware of the constraints put on women by the patriarchy, there was a genuine mutual respect and warmth between the two.

It is a delight of a book and deservedly won the Costa prize this year and – all things being equal – should garner a clutch of other prizes too.

  This is a remarkable novel.

Of the three CILIP Carnegie nominees I’ve read, this is my clear front runner. And I’m saying that having read Patrick Ness!

Before I review it, however, I’m going to play a game with my sixteen year-old stepson, whose birthday it is today. Despite his protestations, he is going to give me three numbers between 1 and 408, which is the number of pages in the book. His choices are: 407, 52 and 64. I think that the novel is so rich in (or over-abundant in, depending on your sensibilities) figurative language that I’ll be able to find an example on each page!

Page 407: Trista’s smile is “thorny”, which may be literal or figurative; her life is a “book” which could have been “closed”; the Crescent family is a “jigsaw”.

Page 52: The doctor smiles “warmly” and describes trauma as being like a time when you “swallowed a marble” causing “A … sort of tummy ache of the mind”; an explanation which is “homely”.

Page 64: Triss was driven home “with jazz in her blood” made up of “leaping” melodies; her sense of identity “closed in on her again, like cold, damp swaddling clothes”; a motorbike is described as a “lean, black creature”, out-of-place like “a footprint on an embroidered tablecloth”; it was “bold”, with the “rough cockiness of a stray dog”.

One of the first things that leapt at me from the novel was the level of metaphor, simile, personification and pathetic fallacy. Perhaps it was particularly noticeable having used the word “sparse” to describe the prose in previous recent reads. In fact, it was so noticeable I had blogged about it here.  Not quite purple prose but a little self-indulgent perhaps, a little self-aware. Actually, quite close to my own writing style so perhaps I recognised the richness in the same way I’d recognise my own reflection – and that was a very deliberate analogy!

But each simile and metaphor is gorgeous and resonant. I particularly liked the following quote

Outside Triss’ room, the evening came to an end. There was movement on the landing, muffled voices, door percussion. The faint rustles and ticks of the sleep-time rituals. And then, over the next two hours, quiet settled upon the house by infinitesimal degrees, like dust.

The story itself is evocative and powerful. And very British. It revolves around changelings and fairies and elves – but very much in the vein of Shakespeare’s Puck rather than Disney: mischievous, childish, animalistic creatures whose interactions with humanity are nervous, whimsical and suspicious. And it is a crackinglingly good adventure story in its own right.

Set in the aftermath of World War One, it is also a bone-achingly dissection of grief and loss. Not simply at an individual level – Triss’s brother, Sebastian having died in the French trenches – but also at a societal level. The shattering of the pre-war traditions and beliefs and structures; and the futile efforts of some characters to cling to the empty traditions. I can recognise that in my own grandmother’s attempts to maintain the facade of respectability and gentility which did feel like a pantomime – a memory of a ghost of a pantomime – even to my dulled senses.

So how much more appealing is the world of the fairies (or the Besiders) – immigrants forging a life a new life in the cities and towns, fleeing from the countryside and foreign countries. And how apt and poignant is that? As the UK enters a General Election with UKIP currently on 15% of the vote. The Besiders are chaotic, dangerous, afraid; some may be malicious, mostly seeking nothing more than shelter and safety. And in there, perhaps, lies one of  the many beauties in the novel: neither the immigrant Besiders not the indigenous humans are demonised. Both communities have suffered; both communities are suspicious of the other; both communities are rich in different ways.

And beneath this again lies a psychological tale of parents and children, the thorny boundaries between love, protection and autonomy being explored in all their complexities and knottiness. Triss’s dependence on her parents, their dependence on her dependence, are dissected with a brutal honesty; sibling rivalries and love grow and rip open characters. How do we forge our identities, our sense of self, when so much of what we are is inherited, borrowed from and imprinted on us by the limited worlds we inhabit. The image of Triss / not-Triss / Trista stuffed full of leaves, twigs and ribbons and borrowed memories is an apt metaphor for each of us struggling to create our own stories, our own voices.

And Violet.

Violet was a wonderful creation: the uncompromising, unsentimental, jazz-feulled motorbiking Violet.

There’s certainly scope in the novel for a sequel – even a series. But I hope Harding doesn’t go down that road. I’d rather have these characters live independently in my imagination, a right that they fought for throughout the novel.

This is the first of my reviews of this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal nominees. Well, my second. Patrick Ness’ More Than This I read back in August – see here for my review – six months before the shortlist was announced. And to be honest, it will take some beating!

Anyway, this is my first knowing CILIP Carnegie read. 

And I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly! I don’t think it’s a winner but a great read. I mean, fairytales, wolves, witches, werepeople, cross dressing. And a slightly underused hen. What’s not to like? 

   Fairytales and mythology have continued to inspire writers and are enjoying a revival with Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Susanna Clarke, Helene Wecker, Ali Smith, Ali Shaw, Erin Morgenstern and the ubiquitous Disney – who would watch Frozen when you could read The Girl With Glass Feet? So, in this environment, expectations are high for Tinder. Heady company, Ms Gardner!

And the opening lines do not disappoint. 

Once in a time of war, when I was a soldier in the Imperial Army, I saw Death walking. He wore upon his skull a withered crown of white bone twisted with green hawthorn. His skeleton was shrouded with a tattered cloak of gold and, in his wake, stood the ghosts of my comrades newly plucked, half-lived, from life. Many I knew by name. 

  Based on the first fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson’s wrote, The Tinderbox, Tinder‘s narrator is Otto Hundebiss, a common soldier drafted into the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. Following the slaughter of his compatriots, Otto drifts into a fairytale world of hidden castles, unruly princesses and fearsome werewolves. Following the structure of the original take, Otto has to face three trials in order to retrieve a mysterious tinderbox, keeping the riches he finds there. Instead of returning it to its owner, he keeps the tinderbox, causing her to be killed. In a nearby town, he discovers that the tinderbox grants him the power to summon monstrous werewolves. 

The language of the novel maintains the sparseness and occasional lyricism of the classic fairytale. There’s not the depth of character or psychology you might expect: Otto never becomes more than a cipher for the traumatised child soldier, the common man struggling against social inequalities, or sexual maturing. He doesn’t work as a character, even though Gardner does toss us flashbacks to the horrors that Otto has experienced. But that’s all okay because this is, at the end of the day, a fairy tale. 

The illustrations in the book by David Roberts are also worth a mention: they are gorgeous! Simply gorgeous. Stylised and unreal but gorgeous. 

   

 The novel certainly holds the imagination with the quality of an hallucination or a dream and a similar logic. Gardner has said that the novel was inspired by the experiences of returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and of child soldiers in Rwanda as well as the Thirty Years War. For me, these real world parallels were mere echoes – although parents may want to exercise caution as the fate of Otto’s sister becomes clear as well as the fate of the daughter of a neighbouring farm. It is perhaps here that the more modern conflicts and our outrage at the use of rape as a weapon of war become most patent. 

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I do not like wars.

If you cast your eyes over my posts, I think the only war related entries you’ll find are books I’ve had to teach: Strange Meeting by Susan Hill.

I groan audibly when the kids try to put on war films. Much to their annoyance!

So The Long War… I was actually looking forward to the war here. It’s a sequel to The Long Earth which was okay if you like your novels slow and languid with little real action or plot. So I was hoping that the war would at least inject a direction to the rather directionless first book.

The same premise exists: an (apparently) infinite number of alternative Earths exist featuring slight variations in the planet’s history and evolution and (most of) mankind has discovered the ability to step from one world to another.

There’s a significant gap of time between the two books. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking twelve years… but I could be wrong. Joshua Valienté, our protagonist, is now married with a son… but, apart from that fact, he seems to be exactly the same as he was in the previous book. Sally Linsay, similarly, is exactly the same character as well.

The book is such a rich concept that I feel … robbed. Cheated. Let down.

The central image in the novel is of the dirigible airships floating in the sky – the cutting edge technology of the first book made universal. These ships are a symbol of the narrative style: adrift, slow, vaguely heading in one direction. But the multiplicity of airships removed and narrative drive: one ship heads one way, another the other way, another follows the first, another comes back again… Many authors would coincide these different characters and journeys into a climax.

This book doesn’t have that.

It doesn’t have … anything really.

The novel gently records a variety of worlds like a travelogue but without the depth and colour. There is no war between humanity and the other sentient forms; nor between Datum and Long Earth communities – despite the name of the book. It all sort of… peters out. One of the airships travels millions of worlds … and just turns around and goes back again.

These books have none of the wit, wordplay, pace, humanity or passion of Pratchett’s usual writing. And the quality of the writing is … not great. I’m fully aware that I’m not one to talk – and a comment like that invites all sorts of criticism of my own prose! – but the repetitious nature of the language as worlds ticked by grated. Grated immensely.

The new species introduced in this book – Kobolds and Beagles and the extinct reptilians – were deeply unimaginative. They seemed almost lifted from computer games. And too familiar: however many times the beagles were described as wolf-like, they just weren’t.

Currently, I have the third book in the series – The Long Mars – queued up on my to-be-read list.

I’m not sure whether I’m going to bother…

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It’s that time of year again: the Carnegie Medal Shortlist is announced! Much joy! Genuine excitement! Much fretting over how to juggle reading the Shortlist with doing work, marking, planning … and, this year, entertaining the baby!

And Roof Toppers was a lovely way to start the Shortlist … Which I finished today by reading it out loud to the baby! Who says men can’t multitask?!

The story follows Sophie, a year-old baby orphaned in a ship wreck in the English Channel and rescued by an English gentleman and gentle man by the name of Charles Maxim. It is set in an undefined period but with perhaps a nineteenth century feel: the authorities disapprove of a man raising a female child and, as she hits puberty, try to take her into care. To escape, Charles and Sophie flee to France in order to find Sophie’s natural mother as – despite all the evidence to the contrary – Sophie is convinced survived the catastrophe.

Rundell has a lovely turn of phrase in the book: the prose has a musicality which is perhaps unsurprising when we realise that Sophie is saved inside a cello case in which is the first clue that sets her en route to Paris. It’s the sort of book where I find myself underlining phrases such as

he had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.

In fact, Charles is a jolly good role model for a parent: unconventional, eccentric, scholarly to the point of archaic, he brought Sophie up on a diet of imagination, Shakespeare and music with large helpings of ice cream!

In fact, there are echoes of Shakespeare through the book. The eponymous roof toppers are a group of youths who inhabit the aerial spaces above Paris: the roof tops of buildings and tree tops of the parks. They are not far removed from the fairies of A Midsummer Nights Dream and Sophie’s mother’s photograph is discovered from the doomed vessel in which she was disguised as a man. Sophie also makes a copy of Hamlet “slightly damp” whilst using it as a booster seat and

had a habit of breaking plates, and so they had been eating their cake off the front cover of A Midsummer Night’s Dream….

Sophie … waited until Charles was looking away, then dropped the book on the floor and did a handstand on it.

Charles laughed. ‘Bravo!’ He applauded against the table. ‘You look the stuff that elves are made of.’

So, overall, and endearing and lovely book which is unlikely to win because it’s too sweet

There are some books – most books probably – which I read, finish and review pretty much straight away. They are like those meals which are fine, tasty and enjoyable but which you move on from.

Some, however – stretching the metaphor perhaps to breaking point – I like to savour more, to digest, before turning to review it. And The Golem and the Djinni was one of those.

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It creates a world of magic realism in which Wecker invokes the rich, hopeful, uncertain and insecure world of New York in the nineteenth century opening its arms to the cultures of the world. Two specific immigrant communities are conjured up: the Jewish quarter and Little Syria. There is a richness and humanity in these descriptions: men and women struggling to reconcile old traditions with a new way of life; younger generations breaking away from more traditional beliefs.

And into these two communities in modern America come two beings of distant times. One, the ancient bound Djinni – a creature of fire from the Syrian desert bound and trapped in a flask – and the other a golem, born of ancient powers aboard a ship bound for America only a handful of days before she arrives.

These two creatures are mirror images of each other: the Djinni is an ancient, shape-shifting, whimsical creature bound to a single form and rebelling against his confinement; the Golem is barely a few weeks old, forged to be a slave and obedient but set terrifyingly free by the death of the master to whom she was bound days after her awakening.

And I think that, in that mirroring, we see the crafted nature of this book: for a long book there are very few characters and each one revolves in his or her own circle, occasionally overlapping before the circles move on again. In addition to the two creatures, you only really have Arbeely, the tin smith who releases and takes in the Djinni; Rabbi Meyer who finds and takes in the golem and his nephew Michael Levy; Mahmoud Saleh from Little Syria; the American heiress Sophia Winston; and Anna Blumberg with whom the Golem works and who becomes her friend.

And Yehudah Schaalman, the Golem’s creator.

I think this is the character, Schaalman, with whom I was least satisfied with. He is the antagonist and provides the final chapters of the novel with a strong plot. But, without giving away spoilers, his involvement was a little too neatly tied up and he did at times come across as the most two dimensional character in a novel populated by more rounded characters. He was a great villain. But he never really became more than a villain for me.

And I’d have liked to have seen more of Sophia. As a rich girl trapped in an engagement, she crosses paths with the Djinni and – somewhat inevitably – they form a brief liaison. But she is given some of the simplest but most beautiful and heart-breaking prose in the book as she realises what is happening between her water-based body and the flame which the Djinni had raised inside it.

Amid the dark haze of heat and desperation, she felt something shift inside her. A tendril of fire shot up her spine—and then her mind was filled with a small frightened fluttering, a noise like a candle flame whipped by a breeze. At once she knew that there was something trapped inside her, tiny and half-formed, and that it was drowning in her body, even as it burned her. There was nothing that either of them could do.

There are obvious parallels between this and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: the detailed recreation of a specific time and place; its juxtaposition with the magical realm. That’s certainly all there but I prefer the comparison with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus as both that and The Golem and the Djinni eschew the wider nation building that Susanna Clarke’s novel luxuriates in in favour of a smaller and more intimate cast. All three are, however, among my favourite novels!

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There is only really one word to describe this book.

Perfect.

Absolutely and undoubtedly, a perfect book.

Powerful, moving, honest.

A true book.

A summary of the plot here will not serve to convey its power. Go out and read this book.

In my own small way, however, here goes. The adult narrator returns to his old childhood home for one of his parents’ funeral, visits his neighbour’s farm and recalls his experiences as a seven-year old child. And, as you would expect of Gaiman, those experiences are dark, dangerous and otherworldly. His lodger’s suicide leads him to the Hemstock farm which seems itself to be part of an otherworld or an old world or a pre-reality world. Other remnants of the old world are embedded in the fabric of the farm which find their way through the narrator into the ‘real’ world. The remainder of the book revolves around the Hemstocks’ attempts to banish the remnant back to where it came from.

The Hemstocks – Lettie, her mother Ginnie and old Mrs Hemstock – seem to owe much to (or be a strange hybrid of) both a witches’ coven of maiden, mother and crone and Doctor Who. The sympathy Lettie shows the remnant, the offer to return her home before destroying her, even some of the cadences of her speech all seem to owe a debt to Gaiman’s involvement with Doctor Who. Tasting a coin to determine its age from the layout of its electrons was very Doctor Who!

Having grown up myself as a reader on the Kent-Sussex border to professional parents and having spent most of my weekends on my grandmother’s farm – on which my grandmother also lived in a caravan – the situation that Gaiman creates was very authentic and credible. The taste and texture and smell of milk drawn straight from the cow and of porridge made from it and of early morning milkings leapt from the page. The setting breathed in a way that the more stylised settings of Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust – all brilliant books in their own right – and even The Doctor’s Wife and Nightmare in Silver didn’t.

It was authentic.

And the horror beneath it is all the more horrific because of that authenticity.

And there is horror here. Monsters are there to be banished. Not entirely malign but monstrous and horrific.

The most disturbing elements though, as often with Gaiman, come through the less monstrous and more familiar elements: the housekeeper who wasn’t quite what she seemed and violated the sanctity of the family; the father who tried to drown his son in the bath in possibly the most horrific and chilling scene I have ever read in a book.

These scenes are uncanny – unheimliche – in that the familiar and homely and familial becomes other. In Coraline, the other and the unheimliche was relatively safe behind a door which could be locked. In The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the child himself becomes the door and it is his own home (his own Heim) that becomes unheimliche. His home – his place of sanctuary, his inviolable domain, his sense of family and of identity – is turned into a prison.

At its heart, in my opinion, this book is about childhood. The terrors of childhood but also its value. And the value of not knowing things and of play. Lettie Hemstock tells us that she

“used to know everything.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Everybody did. I told you. It’s nothing special knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars”

That – and the glorious epigraph by the late lamented Maurice Sendak that “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew them. It would scare them” – puts me in mind of a conversation I once had with a fellow teacher about our children both being scared of monsters at night. “I just told them,” said the other teacher, a science teacher, “that there’s no such thing as monsters and they were being silly.” Myself, as an English teacher, I grabbed a plastic sword, leapt under the bed and slashed through the wardrobe to kill the monsters threatening my son!

Anyway, I digress.

This is a fantastic book. Everything is spot on. Everything is authentic. It is horrific, beautiful, mythic and true.

I really cannot praise this gem of a book enough!

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