GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON

Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon was winner of the Newberry Medal in 2017. Here’s what the blurb on the back says.

Every year the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as a sacrifice to the witch that lives in the forest. But the witch, Xan, is a kind one. She rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babes with starlight on the journey. But one year Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, who she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s 13th birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge – with dangerous and thrilling consequences.

This is, apart from anything else, a fabulous demonstration of world-building. I have this issue with some fantasy stories – and my husband laughs at me – I call it the “market garden problem”. When we watched the Lord of the Rings movie, I objected to Rohan, the home of the horse lords. It sits right in the middle of nowhere – and there appeared to be no market gardens. So where did they get their vegies from? In this book, though there are many magical elements, everything makes sense. There are (so to speak) market gardens. The witch Xan and her friends are strong and lovable characters; Luna is a gifted, exasperating, loving heroine; the large cast contains some memorable villains. This story brought tears to my eyes (which doesn’t happen very often), made me laugh and kept me guessing. There are multiple plot-lines that twist and twine and eventually all come together in a surprising and satisfying finale. A coming-of-age story that talks about good and evil, love, family, belonging and growing up and growing old. Beautiful.

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NOT WITHOUT AUNT BEAST

I have a lovely stack of children’s books here in front of me – more than a weekend’s reading, probably, but I hope to get through them quickly. Because I’ll be reading the same number  again, a couple of times, before the end of July.

This is because I’ve been asked to do another “Green’s Guide to Good Books” for Text Marks the Spot, which is the Bendigo Writer’s Festival schools program. It consists of me talking about the books I’ve read and enjoyed and would recommend. Therefore the pile. Too many nights watching British crime and knitting lately, so this is a much-needed push into catching up on my reading.

And there are so many good books out there! I’m already completely caught up in How to Bee by Bren McDibble. It’s the voice. And it’s almost always the voice. Peony is brave, funny, straightforward. Listen.

Today! It’s here! Bright and real and waiting. The knowing of it bursts into my head, so big and sudden, like the crack of morning sun bursting through the gap at the top of the door. I fall out of my bunk and hit the packing-box floor. I scramble up, right into Gramps asleep in his chair in front of the potbelly stove.
‘Cha!’ he growls.
‘Sorry Gramps,’ I say. ‘It’s bee day.’ I pull on my pest vest and try to squeeze past him, but he puts out his foot.
‘First eat, then bee,’ he says, real firm. He cuts a wedge from the oatcake on top of the stove.
Cockies screech loud from the tree over our shack. They know it’s time to get moving. ‘I can’t,’ I say and try to squeeze past again. ‘Foreman’s waiting.’
My sister, Magnolia, sticks her fluffy head out from the top bunk. ‘Stomp yourself, Peony-pest,’ she groans.
‘You won’t diz me when I’m a bee,’ I say.

This is a world where all the bees have died.  Brave and nimble children have to climb the fruit trees to pollinate the flowers by hand. Pests are picked by hand, too – that’s why Peony is wearing a pest vest – but Peony has set her heart on being a bee. Big themes and ideas, deceptively simple writing. It so deserves to be on the CBCA shortlist. And what a really beautiful cover it is.

I’m not confining myself to new releases, however. I have just re-read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time in 50 years. Yes, I am that old! I bought this copy in 1968. Puffin books were 60c then, and $2 birthday money got me 3 books – what bliss.
And another great cover.

I haven’t seen the film, and probably won’t, since an 8-year-old film critic and I had a long conversation about it in the bookshop where I work. We agreed that converting a book to a film is a tricky thing. You can’t always leave everything in. Scenes and characters you love sometimes get the chop.  And that’s what happened in this film version.
“They left out Aunt Beast,” he told me. And he was very unimpressed. “I can’t recommend it,” he said. Even-handedly he added, “But you never know, you might like it.”
“Not without Aunt Beast,” I said.

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THE RITUAL BURNING

Last weekend, I went to a friend’s house for a ritual burning. Don’t worry – no humans or animals were harmed. Both of us were in the process of clearing the backlog of documents and paperwork that had been cluttering filing cabinets and cupboard for far too long. Among the archived bills and receipts were more personal papers, and we spoke about these  as we let them go.

My friend consigned her Year 12 assignments  – dating from 1976 – to the flames. Sheet after sheet of beautiful, neat handwriting, diligently researched essays about ancient Greek battles and the poetry of Keats and art and architecture of the middle ages, turned satisfyingly to ashes. And I got rid of diaries and journal pages. What a lot of whingeing! Heartbreak, heartache, boredom, discontent, stress and pain. How useful those pages were at the time, a pressure valve and outlet. But no need for them now; those were old hurts and worries and time to move on to new ones.

And there were school reports, references, CVs and academic results. I chucked those onto the bonfire with regret at first, but then with glee. Though I snatched back a page from 1973, in which my much-loved English teacher, Mary Lavallin had given me an A for achievement and attitude, with the comment: “Susan’s written work is always a pleasure to read, and her essays into humorous expression augur well for future versatility. She reads widely and has an excellent vocabulary. Her understanding and love of words are clearly displayed, but at times meaning tends to be obscured by the lavish generosity of expression.”  Yep. And I think I talked a fair bit in class, too. On the same page, for chemistry, there’s a D, and “Sue has had difficulty understanding the basic principles of this subject.”

Why had we kept these things for so long? My friend said that it was the feeling that she’d put so much effort and time into those essays, so they couldn’t just be trashed. And as for me – perhaps there was some idea that by documenting your life, you prove that you exist. Or  – in the case of the reports and references – simply some vague feeling of obligation to authority. Who knows? I certainly don’t. I only know that I loved watching these things curl and singe and brown and then blacken, flare up and flame and eventually turn to grey ash. What a feeling of freedom and lightness.

This weekend, I’ve gone through my bookcases and had a mighty purge. Some books are going to the Op Shop, some to the bin, and some to the local antiquarian and second-hand bookseller. I know some people can’t throw books away, but there are things I’ll never read again, interests that have waned, projects that have been long completed. I don’t need the evidence. And emptier shelves means room for more books.

 

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WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In mid-May, I gave a couple of library talks about my novel “How Bright Are All Things Here”. One was at Woodend, and the other was here in Castlemaine. Here’s an edited version of the talk.

A question I’ve been asked, many times, is “What’s the novel about?” I’ve listened to marketing and publicity experts, I’ve been to workshops and seminars; you should be prepared for this question. You should have something brief and punchy prepared. One sentence… Well, I fumble around with that one. It’s hard to say.
It’s about all the things that I like to think about.
Or, it’s about Bliss Henderson, an elderly woman lying dying, excavating her past, while her three stepchildren, with messy lives of their own, hover. Which sounds a bit grim, but I promise you, it isn’t.
Or else, it’s about all sorts of things that interest me. Art and artists, feminism, mysticism, poetry, aged care, fashion, food, the Festival of Britain, children and families, marriage, masculinity, mysticism and the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works.
But, really, basically, at its heart, the novel is about time. From the very first sentence, it’s about time.

Am I dead yet?
It can’t be long now, darling. Can you tell me when? I mean, exactly?
Or is it meant to be a surprise?

Bliss, suffering from heart failure and having recently fallen and damaged her spine, is in an aged-care facility – and how she despises that name. She knows she’s dying. Her question is about the future. When? Her stepdaughter Paula comes every day, rushing, making the time, taking the time, never enough time. But Bliss has all the time in the world.

Could I give her some of mine? Lord knows, I’ve wasted enough, on tears and fears and falling in love. But still, in spite of all I’ve let slip through my fingers, there is so much time left. It flows and folds, loops backwards and forwards simultaneously like an endless ribbon. I go back, back, back. I find my mother’s button jar, plunge in my hand and watch the buttons scatter with a clattering sound. Pearl, horn, shell, glass: shiny jet from an evening gown: Bakelite from a shirt. Here I am, in my bed. What will I find if I reach in? More time. All the times of my life.
How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
I try to clutch the dancing sparkles that spin above me in the sunlight – so close! – but they always, always whirl away from me up into the air and stay suspended, glittering, just out of reach.

All the times of my life… She’s in a space that’s out of time. She’s on morphine. Infinite time. Time suspended. It’s a bit like that Tardis in Dr Who. And yet. She goes on (and a warning for those who are offended by bad language – Bliss doesn’t swear much but occasionally for emphasis she lets rip with the f-word).

That’s all very poetic, but down to business. Time is running out. Since that day in the kitchen, it’s been a flat-out fucking gallop. Pardon my French, it just slipped out.

The structure and rhythm of the novel are all to do with this backwards and forwards motion of time running out and endless time. Bliss and her stepchildren – Paula, Tom and Anne – are dealing in their various ways with the countdown and so of course, something closely related to time comes into play for all of them. It’s memory. So the book is also about memory.
Bliss has a fabulous memory. Total recall. She thinks.

Once, at a cocktail party, I boasted to a writer about my powers of recall and was brought up short when he asked, “How do you know what you’ve forgotten?”
“Obviously there’d be a gap,” I said. “And there isn’t.”
“Perhaps not a gap in continuity, but what if you’ve forgotten some infinitesimal detail – a look, a gesture, a word – which, left out of your narrative, entirely changes the whole meaning?”
“That sort of thing only happens in novels. Your novels.”
We both laughed, and then he said, “What if our memories are a screen we’ve made to shield us from the truth?”

Lying in her bed, Bliss relives her life. I can use lots of metaphors here – she excavates, she peels away layers, she even (though she’d never say this) picks at scabs. But there are some memories she can’t or won’t approach directly, some she turns away from and some she cannot even acknowledge. As all of us amateur psychologists know, some of what makes us who we are is deeply buried in our childhood, in memories before memory really exists, and even in the traumas of our parents. These are issues that interest me deeply. Bliss relates moments from her early childhood in the 1930s, with her reclusive illustrator mother; the elderly lesbians who adopt her; art studies in London in the 1950s and marriage to an expat Australian artist there. There are affairs, another marriage, friendships – especially friendships – and work. And then there’s a shift back to Australia and the four children. Bliss narrates most of the novel, but the children get their own sections as well. This allows the reader to see Bliss as others see her, and is often the case with parents and children, you would sometimes think they are talking about different people, their perceptions can vary so markedly. Again, it’s the mystery of other people.

Here are the two step-daughters at the nursing home. Bliss is now in palliative care. They look down at her as she lies in the bed.

Anne says, “It’s so sad. Tragic really. She wasted her life.”

Paula turned to her, shocked. “Shh.”

“You don’t have to hiss at me like that, Paula. Anyway, she’s sleeping. She can’t hear.”

“You don’t know that. And her life wasn’t wasted.” Paula stared at her sister. How could Anne imagine that Bliss’s full, wild, flawed life was tragic and wasted? By what criterion did she judge? He eyes moved back to the figure under the blanket. Fountains, fireworks, flowers: explosions of colour and light: a sudden breeze that blew the fusty curtains open: a leopard skin coat, a wicked almost dirty laugh. It was love, it was joy, it was art –

“Wasted or not, it all comes down to this,” Anne said, and Paula knew she now perceived only the skull beneath the skin, the withering, the waste, the decay.

“It comes down to this for everyone,” Paula snapped. For the beautiful, the irresistible and dangerous. And for the perfect wives and mothers, too. “Come on, let’s go.”

Since the book is about time, it’s also about change. I’ve long had a fascination for the immediate post-war (post 2nd world war) period in Europe and Australia. Enormous political and social changes were underway, but my initial interest was piqued by the stories my parents told, of their time in the UK in the early 1950s. I did a great deal of very enjoyable research for this novel – so enjoyable, that it didn’t seem to count as work. I investigated women’s magazines and their illustrations, short fiction and journalism; the novels of Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark; biographies of artists I admired, like John Minton and Edward Bawden; the Festival of Britain; social history titles such as the series by David Kynaston on ‘Austerity Britain’, Tony Judt’s Post War’, AN Wilson’s “After the Victorians” and “Our Time”. I watched 1950s and 60s movies and TV series set in that time. I also scrounged around in second hand shops for books of social history and current affairs published at the time. There was the feeling in Britain that everything was going to get better. Better and better. Never had it so good. And yet – anyone who’s seen “The Crown” on Netflix will recognize how difficult and uncomfortable it is to live in the precise moment when the powerful, entrenched “old” is grindingly, slowly, reluctantly moving aside for the new. Like being pincered. Poor Princess Margaret!
These huge changes meant that the look of things in art, architecture, textile and furniture design, fashion, publishing all changed. The ideas expressed in literature changed. What could be said (without fear of prosecution), changed. Some of changes took a while to peak or to surface. For instance, it was as late as 1960 that the publishers of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were being prosecuted for obscenity, and the barrister questioned whether the book was something “you would even wish your wife or servants to read.”

What’s the novel about?  Time, memory, change. Not in the abstract; personally, too, as I’ve experienced them. It’s a personal book for me; it isn’t autobiographical, but I’d be lying if I said that “I” wasn’t in it. The sections set in the bayside suburb of Chelsea and in Melbourne in the 1960s contain my memories of the look and feel of the time. There’s a paragraph where Bliss names of the railway stations all the way to Frankston; I used to do that. And I had an epiphany, somewhat different, but visually the same, in York Minster  with the Heart of the North stained glass window, the doves, the sunset and the organ music swirling around me. I’m not either of the daughters Paula or Anne, but there’s the aspect of being there with a parent physically declining, suffering, needing care. And dying. My mother was not Bliss. But some qualities – her courage, resilience and humour in the face of intense suffering – are part of that character. I’m not heartless, and I loved my mother dearly, but the novelist in me cannot help but observe, and store those observations for use. In a way, in my way, writing was a part of memorializing my mother’s struggle, her suffering, her courage.

Finally, this book is about love. First love, last love; sex and passion and the terrible mistakes a person can make when they’re in the grip those two; married love, when you’re young, innocent and full of hope and when you’re old, and things are different; the love of, for and between parents and children, and siblings, and friends. Bliss meditates a great deal on love. How she’s failed and faltered. How it’s always a little flawed, or it comes too late, or it’s wrongly expressed, or is simply the work of forces we don’t understand. She’s somewhat cynical in her old age.

She meditates also on love for her work. Bliss talks quite a lot about painting and drawing, both in her youth and her old age; she was taught to draw by her artist mother and her adopted aunt, a famous portraitist; she did figure drawing at the National Gallery School; she won a scholarship to study in London, and later she worked as an illustrator and a textiles designer; she ran a trail-blazing interior design business. In fact, one of the early editors wanted more of that side of Bliss’s life in the book, and originally there was, but it turned it into a different kind of book, changed its shape and its focus, so the chapters are still sitting in their file on the computer. There’s a very wise book, by psychologist Anthony Storr, called “Solitude: A Return to the Self”, in which he challenges the idea that (Here I am quoting) “interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness”. He examines the lives of various creative people, famous and not at all famous, to show that whether it’s your career, your vocation or your hobby, solitary creative work can bring immense satisfaction and happiness and joy. Bliss, at the end of her life, is all for joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WINTER

First day of winter. I’m here in a north-facing room – in front of the heater! – looking out of the window, and the sun is shining. There are still lots of coloured leaves on the fruit trees in the garden and as they catch the light, they glow. And there must be tasty things – insects, gum blossoms? – around, because the crimson rosellas, with their distinctive calls, are swooping down and settling for a bit and then flying off again. The house is calm; today I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything or be anyone. Deep breath. Ah.

It may be the time of year, or perhaps it’s because I’ve just had a significant birthday, but I’m having all these elegaic thoughts. Best expressed, I think, by Sonnet 73.

What time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, nor none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which is was nourished by.
This thous perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Actually, whoa there! Maybe not that elegaic. I’m only 60, after all. “Ere long” will be, I hope, a very very long time. There are places to go, things to do, and after all, I have to get value from my Senior’s Card.

…and there are all those leaves to rake up, and put in the compost, so the cycle continues.

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STUFF

Last week was the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death. The camellia a friend gave me only a few days afterwards is always beginning to bloom by her birthday, and smothered in flowers by now. It’s a beautiful reminder.

I think about her often, usually lovingly, but at times I also curse. It’s the stuff. There’s so much of it. Superannuation records, tax files, appointment diaries. Every card I ever made her. It looks like every drawing my son did, too, even those wild toddler scribbles and scrawls. She kept everything. Only last week I got into a box that contained things like certificates for cholera vaccination in 1952 and though I’m not the despairing kind, I…well, at times it’s tempting to chuck a whole box of these relics into the bin and be done with it.

I’m not sure of her motives. Did she perhaps intend to write a memoir or an autobiography? Mum, amongst other things, trained as a librarian; she was quite the archivist, and there is plenty of well-ordered material on her and my father’s lives and careers.  Perhaps she hoped I’d take it on. Yes, it’s a possibility.

But I am a fiction writer. Just the thought of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth brings me out in hives. It isn’t the burden of research; I love research, and did heaps of it for the three Verity books, and heaps of it, again, for How Bright Are All Things Here. It’s just that my bent is for imagination. Not necessarily invention, for making up novelties, completely new things. My attempt at a fantasy novel taught me that I’m a realistic novelist, and that even if I include supernatural elements (as in Verity) I like to have the plumbing and public transport sorted. What I love most is to imagine myself into facts.

Underneath the mass of material – the facts –  my mother left, is a mystery. I knew her, of course, as my mother growing up and as the one I cared for as she aged. But before she and my father were my parents, they were themselves. Their young selves, newly married, exploring Europe, seeing such sights as two young Australians had only read about or seen in books or films. Realising how much I myself had changed from my twenties to my fifties – I was almost a different person! – I began to wonder, who were they? And I knew, that though there were hints and signs in that mass of archived material, I’d never really know.

And perhaps it’s not for me to know, anyway. In How Bright Are All Things Here, I wanted to get at a truth that I think – I hope – is an important one. It’s certainly one that has preoccupied me for a long time. It’s not original, it’s not earth-shattering, but it’s this  –  you can never truly know anyone, even the ones you are closest to, even the ones that you love. It’s the mystery of other people. Perhaps that’s what many – most – books are about, anyway.

 

 

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HOME BEAUTIFUL

It’s six months since we visited a kitchen show room in nearby Bendigo to choose our cupboards and bench-tops and knobs. It’s five months since a handyman came to rip out our old kitchen.  It was shortly before Christmas that the incorrectly cut stone bench-top was replaced, and a range-hood (left out of the initial plan because I didn’t realise that it was the same as an extractor fan) installed. Our old kitchen was a shabby 1970s affair, but we wouldn’t have bothered replacing it if had been able to accommodate a dishwasher. We (well, it was actually foolhardy me) reckoned that you could just cut the end off a cupboard and book in the plumber and it would be done. But no. It’s not that simple. As I have since found out, in the world of home renovation, it almost never is.

I’m not a natural at Home Beautiful. There’s so much stuff you have to keep track of. Endless decisions about very small details. Purchases. Tradespeople. Things you’re meant to know about, like the wiring and where the waste water exits the building. You have to care enough about the colours of tiles and reconstituted stone and melamine joinery so that you can choose from a bewildering number of alternatives. I won’t say it’s been hell. That would be ridiculous in a world where millions of people are not only without kitchens, but without roofs. But it’s been a journey, and a frustrating, time-wasting, delay-ridden one. Friends kept saying – we kept saying this to each other, too – “But you’ll love it when it’s finished.” Well, we shall see.

Yesterday the tiler came to affix the last five tiles. The plumber connected the gas to the cook top. And now – in perhaps the lengthiest and yet tiniest kitchen renovation on record – my husband’s just cooked the inaugural meal. Baked beans on toast with fried eggs. (It’s not to be sneezed at – the perfect Saturday night dinner on the first really cold night this year). I’m planning roast chicken tomorrow, but I think it will take a lot of dinners before it feels like “my ” kitchen. It’s probably the absence of grot and clutter – at present we’re fanatically wiping and rinsing and putting away –  but a little time will take care of that.

All of this made me think about those perfect kitchens that feature in interior design books and TV shows and magazines. Home Beautiful kitchens. The ones with only a basket of quinces on the bench top, or else an artful platter of  heirloom tomatoes. They may be stainless steel quasi-laboratories, or so-called “country style’ or retro or mid-century or whatever else is in vogue, but these shiny clean spaces usually have something in common; they don’t appear to be actually cooked in. Lived in. How busy the stylists must be, stowing tea towels and oven mitts and food processors and t0asters and the compost bucket.

My 1984 book of essays, Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today by Rosalind Coward, is dated in some ways (how could it not be?) but not the chapter called Ideal Homes.

This regime of imagery represses any idea of domestic labour. Labour is there all right, but it is the labour of decorating, designing and painting which leads to the house ending up in this perfect state. We hear about how much the wallpaper cost and how much it cost to get the underlying wall in good condition. We don’t hear about how long it took for some woman to get the room tidy, or who washed the curtains. But the photographs only show the ever-tidy, clean and completed home. The before and after imagery endorses the joint work of couples, the husband and wife who plan, design and decorate the house. The suggestion is that together men and women labour on their houses. The labour is creative and the end product is an exquisite finished house-to-be-proud-of. Domestic labour, the relentless struggle against things and mess, completely disappears in these images. The hard and unrewarding ephemeral labour usually done by a woman, unpaid or badly paid, just disappears from sight. Frustration and exhaustion disappear. Instead, a condition of stasis prevails, the end product of creative labour.

I had the great good luck to be raised by a stay-at-home dad. Many women of my generation had mothers with ferocious standards of housekeeping, up to and including the requirement for a toilet so clean you could almost eat from it.  For some of them, there’s a residual guilt that their houses don’t measure up to Mum’s ideal. This was not my father. His emphasis was on comfort and good food. I remember being shown how to sweep dirt under the mat when visitors were imminent. Don’t take that to mean he despised domestic life; I think he loved it. As I do. He was aware of the large and small ways in which he was responsible for this machine/organism we call “home”. I gained a sense of the seriousness of the task. A well-run home is important to everyone – the adult partners and the children. You could say, to society in general. But it’s still seen as women’s work. And – how wearying this is! – still so undervalued.

However uncritical women may be of bearing the responsibility for the home, it is a rare woman who has never experienced home as a sort of prison…bearing the awesome responsibility for the survival of young children, or torn by commitments to work and children, the home is often a site of contradiction between the sexes, not a display cabinet. Even in the most liberated households, women are well aware of who remembers that the lavatory paper is running out and who keeps an eye on what the children are up to.

Female Desire; Women’s Sexuality Today by Rosalind Howard, Paladin Books, London, 1984

 

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BOOK OF DELIGHTS

I was talking yesterday to a friend who’s confined to bed in a hospital ward with a few tubes and wires stuck into her to treat a major infection. She’s a serious, intelligent woman who always reads serious and intelligent books, but she confessed that at the moment, she just can’t. She’d never really been able to understand why anyone would want to read ‘fluff’ – popular fiction, ‘women’s fiction’, light fiction, whatever you want to call it –  but now she does. It’s soothing and undemanding. You don’t have to concentrate unduly. You know everything will turn out in the end.

My book club title for this month is Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. It begins in Nagasaki, three days after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I started it a week ago, but after only 16 pages of beautifully written prose, I was feeling breathless and oppressed. This wasn’t going to end well. I’m not in hospital, but I knew that this is one of those times when you just have to go lighter.  Our group meets this Tuesday, and I will have to front up without having completed the book.

I’ve turned instead to junior fiction. In a recent blog post, Kate Constable wrote about The Midnight Folk (1927) by John Masefield. This book is an old favourite of mine. I don’t know how many times I read it when I was a child; one summer, when I was around eleven, I tried to re-write it with a little girl instead of a boy as the main protagonist. Kate commented that she wasn’t sure that it would appeal to a modern audience; the plot is convoluted and confusing, and even though it’s quite humorous, she thought that children might have to be led through some of the jokes. Even though I love this book to bits, I quite agree. Kate also noted that some elements – such as transformation into animal form, comic/scary witches and talking portraits – predate later children’s classics by TH White, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling.

I thought about reading it, but since lately I’ve become a bit wary of re-reading beloved childhood books (feet of clay, fallen idols, all that stuff) I decided to skip on to its companion book, The Box of Delights (1935). I never obsessively re-read this one and so it wasn’t lovingly engraved in memory. Actually, I may well have skimmed long sections, because on this re-reading, the first in at least 30 years, parts of it seemed entirely fresh. And utterly delightful in its own eccentric and unpredictable way.

A brief summary doesn’t really indicate all that is within this magical box. But here goes… Kay Harker, on his way home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays, encounters an old Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawlings at the railway station. Cole later performs for Kay and his friends Peter, Jemima and Maria at Kay’s home, Seekings. And there, Cole tells Kay that he’s being pursued. Is it by wolves, criminals, or the forces of evil? It’s not clear. Desperate to evade his enemies, he entrusts Kay with his ‘Box of Delights’. It’s only a shabby little thing, but it enables Kay to magically ‘go small’ (shrink in size), ‘go swift’, and journey into the past.

The plot then explodes all over the place. There are encounters with philosophers, magicians, Roman soldiers, Renaissance alchemists, talking animals and mythical beings like the Celtic hero Herne the Hunter. Gangsters pilot futuristic flying cars and the cast of police and village people wouldn’t go astray in a Miss Marple mystery. To top it all off, Kay’s old enemies Abner Brown and Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, mixing witchcraft with criminality, plan to stop the Christmas celebrations at Tatchester Cathedral by a mass kidnapping of clergy and choirboys.
My favourite parts were where, using the box, Kay slips into the deep past. There is a genuinely gripping and scary scene where he helps a band of Bronze Age herders defend their hilltop camp against marauding wolves. And another where, escaping from the sack of Troy, Kay is at first rescued by pirates and then cast by them onto a deserted island.  After many adventures, Kay defeats greed and dark magic, releases the kidnapped clergy, and Christmas – with presents and feasting and carols and a midnight mass at the Cathedral – goes ahead after all.

Like The Midnight Folk, I don’t think The Box of Delights would stand a chance of getting published today. Too long. Too complicated. Too uneven in tone. Too much. And I loved it.

Masefield, writes Piers Torday, in the Guardian Book Blog 30/11/17,

…reminded us of the midwinter feast’s true origins (without killing the festive fun). He piled the snow up outside the windows while the fire roared inside and let wolves roam in the shadows beyond. He made the feast of the nativity as much a time to celebrate the legend of Herne the Hunter, Arthurian legend and Roman myth, as the son of God. Masefield allowed children to imagine, at this most traditional and domestic time of year, a thrilling sense of winter mystery that felt as old as Christmas itself.

Before The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Dark is Rising and The Children of Green Knowe, and way ahead of Harry Potter and Northern Lights, Masefield allowed the darkness and mystery of old magic to seep into the modern light. For that alone, he should be cherished.

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A DROWNED MAIDEN’S HAIR

I like my own book, The Truth About Verity Sparks, very much. Is it wrong to say so? It’s just that, since I wrote it myself, I was able to include all the kinds of story elements that I love. A young milliner with a mysterious past and a supernatural gift in a world of spiritualism and seances, eccentric friends and dastardly villains, bustles and carriages and foggy, gaslit streets.
If you like those kinds of things too, then A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama will be right up your alley. It’s absolutely my kind of children’s book; after reading it, I felt I could tick off all the elements I love and get a perfect score.
It’s 1909, and Maud Flynn is an inmate of the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans which is somewhere near Boston in the USA. She’s eleven years old, small for her age, clever and defiant and  – according to the Superintendent, Miss Kitteridge, not the sort of little girl that anyone would want to adopt. But she’s wrong. She’s exactly what Miss Hyancinth Hawthorne is looking for. Maud loses her heart to the enchanting Hyacinth, and she’s overjoyed when she goes to live with her, her sisters and their rough but kindly servant, Mufflet. But  – of course – all is not as it seems. (How I love those words!)
Hyacinth and her sisters Victoria and Judith make their money as mediums, providing false comfort to the grief-stricken by providing carefully staged seances. Maud is a valuable asset for the family business; she can hide in small spaces or under the table in order to provide ghostly sound effects. Which she does, willingly, because it seems a small price to pay for such a good home. Besides, Maud would do anything for Hyacinth. But soon the trickery escalates. With five thousand dollars at stake, they all travel to Hyacinth’s seaside cottage at Cape Calypso where Maud is kept inside, hidden, while Hyacinth perfects her plan to fleece the rich Mrs Lambert. Maud is being prepared to impersonate Mrs Lambert’s drowned daughter, Caroline…
Maud is a feisty, complex character; Hyacinth is a fascinating, manipulative, amoral villainess and the unfamiliar (to me) setting in 1900s America added a bit of extra interest to the ‘gaslight’ scene. My only criticism is the cover. I’m sure it’s a lovely painting, and the subject matter is perfectly appropriate, but it lacks punch.

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SCARBOROUGH FAIR

These are Scarborough Lilies (cyrtanthus elatus, according to my gardening book, originally from Cape Province in South Africa) and each year I am bowled over by how bright and beautiful they are.

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