Wednesday 6 March 2024

Books of Summer

I had intended to do an end-of-2023 wrap of the books I read and went so far as to run my eye over them all on Goodreads and start to extract some themes, but in the end I just needed a break this summer. Instead, I've decided to try to do a seasonal wrap, so here is my first: books finished in Summer (between 1 December 2023 and 1 March 2024).

If so inspired, you can follow me on Goodreads.


  • 16/34 books were published in 2023
  • 2/34 published 2020-22
  • 16/34 published before 2020
  • 18/34 are ostensibly children's or YA literature

Top 6, if you made me pick:

  • A Touch of Mistletoe
  • North Woods
  • Lanny
  • The Windeby Puzzle
  • The Grimmelings
  • Bird Life


# a book I own (if you want to borrow)

% a book that's ostensibly children's or YA literature

% # Elizabeth Warren, The Wandering Wombles, 1970

This list would have started a bit more impressively if I lied and brought forward Benjamin Myers highly respected Cuddy (a book I'm still thinking about regularly) which I finished on Nov 30. Instead - Wombles.

Read because I had been backreading a lot of books from my childhood prepping to interview Christchurch author Rachael King at the Writers Festival at the Aotearoa NZ Festival of Art. I was thinking a lot at the time about "tropes" (unkind word) - perhaps "building blocks" - of children's lit: absent parents, portals between worlds, magical transport. 

The Wombles is Beresford's 1960s/70s series about ambulant, pointy-nosed, furry, human-language-speaking creatures who live around the world but most famously on London's Wimbledon Common, and "making good use of things that we find", upcycling and rehabilitating the things humans throw away. The series was adapted for an animated tv series which might have been how I first encountered them? Unsure. 

The Wombles are classic world-within-world: secretly occupying spaces around humans, building their lifestyles around what humans discard, and negotiating those times when the two systems overlap (I did not recall at all from childhood that Wombles only come out at night). In the biographical statement at the end of the book it’s noted that Beresford wrote quarter of a million words per year. Maybe that’s why this book felt a tad perfunctory— the prose isn’t really any better than it needs to be, in order to get you through the book. Did I notice as a kid that the only female characters are a teacher and a cook? Possibly not. And all the commentary about weight — Wombles are meant to be sturdy but the acceptability of this is tightly patrolled, with many a condemnation of the ones who get too tubby. But series like this probably rely on repeated motifs, catchphrases and features that become instantly familiar, which is how reading this book felt.

% # Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins, 1960

Read because as above - revisiting childhood reading. I went back to this book with trepidation and emerged from it soothed by the familiar shape of a story that soaked deeply into me as a child, but still questioning. 

O’Dell’s book — the 1960 Newbery Award winner — is based on the true and tragic story of “Juana Maria” or “the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” (her Native American name is unknown), a Native Californian woman who was the last surviving member and last language speaker of her tribe, the Nicoleño. She lived alone on the island from 1835, when the rest of her community was removed by an American schooner (the motivation for their removal is somewhat unclear). The community has been decimated about 20 years earlier, when a ship full of otter-hunters managed by the Russian-American Company had arrived to hunt and then (perhaps provoked, perhaps not) attacked the island’s inhabitants. In 1853 she was found / tracked down / removed from the island and taken to the mainland, where she was thought to be around “middle-age”. Accounts from the time describe her as lively, fascinated by horses, engaging and engaged. She died of dysentery after 8 weeks. 

O’Dell gives her the name “Karana”. Karana is 12  when a ship of Russian otter hunters arrive on her island. Her father, the village's leader, negotiates and agreement with the captain which is later broken, leading to a fight where many of the island’s men are killed. The next leader departs by canoe to find support; shortly after an American ship arrives and all Karana’s community gathers to board the ship. Karana is onboard when she realises her brother has been accidentally left on the island — she dives overboard to retrieve him but the ship, threatened by a storm, departs. Karana and her little brother are left alone on the island. 

If you’ve not read the book I’m not going to spoil it for you. It is simply told, intensely imagined, almost anti-lyrical in the exactness of its language, but closely observed and utterly centred on Karana’s resilience, resourcefulness, and ability to exist in her isolation. I can remember being entranced as a child — do all bookish kids prepare for that rare chance that they too may one day be abandoned / forced to become a knight / find themselves on a quest? As an adult, I’m conscious O’Dell is telling a story of colonisation, as sensitive and non-judgmental as it is. I wonder if the simplicity of the language and lack of reflection awarded to Karana is meant to indicate some kind of noble savage, unspoiled innocence. And yet I didn’t get the squicks so many books from earlier times give rise to: I would happily read it again.

% Lex Croucher, Gwen and Art Are Not in Love, 2023

Read because it was on the recommendations display at Unity.

Thoroughly competent and charming queer YA that plays to the historical romcom genre. Would make a great gift for a teen in your life.

% J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, 1911

Read because inspired by listening to the Bookwandering episode where Anna James talks to Nikita Gill about the book. 

Okay. The book is definitely racist. The "be my mother" storyline around Wendy is disturbing when you note it's being played out by kids younger than her (acceptable), kids her age (hmmm) and adults (Barrie had a complex family history). But if you can get past those factors (and I don't blame you if you can't set it aside, not everything needs to last forever) my god, is there some fantastic writing and some truly surreal stuff in here. It is utterly a book for adults to read with a noticing eye. I'd love to have time to read this more deeply and write about it to understand it better.

Penelope Lively, Life in the Garden, 2017

Read because was mentioned by a person whose reading I admire when I asked her what was on her pile at the moment.

Charming, quite beautifully structured but also (unsurprisingly, really) quite pot-bound by the then-83 year-old author’s class and life experiences. Really beautiful cover though.

% Astrid Lindgren, Ronia, The Robber's Daughter, 1981

Read because earlier note about childhood re-reading

Utterly as wholesome as I recall it being. From the first page I remembered it all — black-eyed Ronia, the treasured only daughter of the adoring, emotional, bellowing robber chief Matt, his unflappable wife Lovis, the 12 dirty loveable robber rogues in their band, their stone fortress in the woods, the rumphobs, the harpies, the gray dwarves, the wild horses — and the rival band of robbers led by Borka and his gentle, brave son Birk … 

There’s not a lot of plot to the book — some fairly gentle action but the real focus is on the emotional growth Ronia experiences along with her father. Really quite beautiful.

Maru Ayase, The Forest Brims Over, 2023

Read because I noticed the cover on the new books shelf at Good Book Shop.

The concept was intriguing: a novelist's wife turns into a garden on the second floor of their home. I read very little in translation (something I should probably work on) and I struggled to mesh with the tone of this book.

Jeanette Winterson, The Passion, 1987

Read because someone whose reading I admire recommended a more recent book by Winterson to me, but this was just lying around at the library so I grabbed it.

The first two chapters filled a Hilary Mantel-shaped hole in my heart with their historical setting and characterisation, but my interest waned towards the end.

% # Philippa Pearce, Tom's Midnight Garden, 1958

Read because I think it was mentioned on a Backlisted podcast episode - probably the terrific one about The Dark is Rising

Terrific time-slip fiction. I've been aware of this book since I was  kid, but never got around to reading it. The tension Pearce keeps up between which of the main characters will turn out to have the 'real" timeline is so well done.

And speaking of such topics - over Christmas I also listened to the wonderful BBC adaptation of The Dark is Rising which I can't recommend enough. Gloriously read, and with a beautiful soundscape. Save it up and listen when it's cold - it sat weirdly with hot windy days in the Wairarapa.

% Donna Barba Higuera, The Last Cuentista, 2021

Read because another recommendation from the Unity Books staff picks display

It’s 2061, and a solar flare has knocked Halley’s Comet off course and directed it head-on into Earth. 12 year-old Petra Peña’s parents, renowned botanist and geologist, have secured spaces for their family on one of three shops that will leave Earth and travel through time and space to a habitable planet. Some travelers will be placed in stasis & plugged into Matrix-style learning programmes to be the first settlers on the new planet: others, the Monitors, will carry an intergenerational responsibility to care for them until that time. Except Petra’s programme doesn’t work properly, and when she is wakened from her stasis and encounters the totalitarian Collective that now runs the ship, she will have to draw on all the wisdom of her parents and especially the folklore her abuelita taught her to survive … 

It’s a gripping set-up and very cinematic, moving between spaceship drama and magical Mexican folklore. As an adult reader though you can feel Higuera just trying a bit too hard with it all, and over-playing the sentimentality.

Janina Ramírez, Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages Through the Women Written Out of It, 2022 

Read because I noticed it on the shelves at Good Book Shop but know better than to buy myself non-fiction books I'll only read once (if I even make it to the end of them).

The last year or so of my reading has had a semi-intentional medieval(ish) thread: Haven, Matrix, Hild, The Beatryce Prophecy, Eleanor Parker’s calendar of the Anglo-Saxon year. That’s meant a lot of people’s research re-absorbed, some lightly wielded and some rather heavily apparent. 

Ramirez’s book starts strongly with an introduction looking at some Suffragettes who were also medievalists, a field of study that exposed them to the silencing effect of the Victorian “great man” style of history-making. It then moves through about 6 centuries of women’s lives — some identified, like Julian of Norwich and Jagwida of Poland, and others stubbornly anonymous, known only by their burial sites (the Loftus Princess, a black African woman buried in a London plague pit) or the work they left behind (the Bayreuth Tapestry). 

Throughout, Ramirez argues for a history of the medieval period that’s less binary, more compassionate, more complex and more comical than our received tropes would suggest. It became a bit of a slog towards the end (I think I'd just had enough of this particular plate of pasta) but a million more instances of historical fiction could bloom out of this one.

# Barbara Comyns, A Touch of Mistletoe, 1967

Read because I brought a couple of Comyns' books home from me from a trip to London last year: Daunt Books editions picked up at Hatchards. Part of a few years now of back-reading steely mid-20th century British women novelists.

I loved this. I love the slightly chaotic nature of Comyns' writing: she just throws everything at it. A Touch of Mistletoe had me thinking about my all-time favourite book, I Capture the Castle - it's like Comyns took Rose and Cassandra out of that book, made them over into Blanche and Vicky for this one, and then threw life at them. Highly recommended. 

# Ann Patchett, Tom Lake, 2023

Read because this was me getting stuck into my summer reading, and the pile of books I'd been building, like a beaver with its dam, over the second half of the year.

A peaceful, contented book full of love — love of place, of cherry trees, love of a grandmother, of three beautiful grown daughters, love for one’s young self and love for one’s middle-aged, fulfilled self. In other hands such a story could be cloying, but Patchett draws you in close with her storytelling. It’s like the authorly equivalent of lowering your voice to reel listeners in.

% # Kiran Millwood Hargrave, In the Shadow of the Wolf Queen, 2023

Read because I'd heard Hargrave on the Bookwandering podcast and really enjoyed her episode about Garth Nix's Abhorsen sequence.

Wolf Queen was hyped on a bunch of end of year lists (the British kids / YA author community is social-media-tight) and I have an interest in the green magic genre. I wanted this to be a bit deeper than it was though - the world-building could've been pushed a bit further out. I found myself thinking of Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island, another book where a nervous second sister has to step up into the leading role, which has an incredibly satisfying environment for the story to play out in.

# Max Porter, Lanny, 2019

Read because I bought this in Oxford on that same trip, after listening to a podcast with Porter while walking around the township.

The bliss, after reading a few too many over-determined YA novels, of not knowing what the author is doing, and just being swept along in it. Reminds me of The Owl Service in that way. Like Cuddy, it's amazing contemporary British storytelling. You should just read it.

# Daniel Mason, North Woods, 2023

Read because plucked from the NYT books of the year list for the aforementioned summer reading pile.

Stonkingly good sweeping historical fiction, set in the woods of New England and following generations of colourful characters living in a single homestead.

% # Kelly Barnhill, When Women Were Dragons, 2022

Read because another from the Unity Books display.

The premise and set-up for this book were SO GOOD (in 1950s America, women start spontaneously combusting into dragons because their restricted lives are just too frustrating - shades of Naomi Alderton's The Power: that link above leads to a review of the book by Alderman, which I hadn't read before putting this list together) that is made up for the last 10% of so being a bit pedestrian / too pat.

Robert Vennall, The Forgotten Forest, 2023

Read because another book reserved at the library after spotting it at Unity Books. 

Canters along merrily and delivers a great deal information although the “we’re on a bush walk” narrative style gets a bit tiresome.

% Zohra Nabi, The Kingdom Over The Sea, 2023

Read because ordered at the library by virtue of the NYT 2023 books list, I think. Either that or a recommendation from the tight British kids lit community.

I struggled to finish this one. Maybe it’s pitched a little younger than I prefer, and therefore every challenge is easily resolved. The core issue for me as a grown-up reader was the emotional tell-not-showing: characters resent each other then two sentences later they’ve resolved their differences & are friends; two adult characters are depicted as unwilling to engage with & support the lead character — which could be interesting — but the dynamic isn’t given enough room to mature and then also just gets tidily resolved at the end.

# Anne Enright, The Wren, The Wren, 2023

Read because I read everything Enright publishes.

There’s a certain breed of book, I find, that is a hard read - uncomfortable, unlikable - throughout most of it, then when you reach the end you enter at state of fulfillment, contentment: you become fond of the book in immediate retrospect. The Wren, The Wren is one of those books.

Karen Maitland, A Company of Liars, 2008

Read because recommended by a colleague.

As noted, books set in the medieval period have been a feature of the past few years' reading and this tale of a band of travellers in plague-struck England, each practicing their own deceptions, fits in there. Kind of like a good stew - chunky, with a satisfying set of ingredients.

% Roberto Piumini, Glowrushes, 1987
(recently translated from the Italian)

Read because picked up from a NYT review along with the Lois Lowry below

There’s an unprovable theory that the distinguishing line between writing for children and writing for adults is that writing aimed for children does not stray into the emotional realm that (typically) only adult experiences make accessible to us. In that case, Piumini’s book, while centred on a child and very simply told, is not a children’s book, because if deals in the matter of adult transformation. 

A king calls a painter to his palace, to decorate the rooms of his eleven year-old son, who has a deadly allergy to sunlight and air-borne dust. Together, the painter and the prince create three linked environments of mountains, sea and meadow. As the boy’s health fails the stories become ever deeper, and the shared love of him between the painter and the king ever more poignant. 

Half-way through the book, I was thinking “No kid would ever want to read this, it’s boring”. At the end that didn’t matter. Not a book for kids, but a beautiful emotional experience nonetheless.

Nicola Griffith, Menewood, 2023

Read because I really enjoyed the first in this series, Hild - an imagining of the  early life of the 7th century English saint, Hild of Whitby. (Did I mention the medieval thing?)

The depth of research outstrips the pace of the narrative at times, but you can feel how the author lives and breathes the character of Hild and the pain she endures in this novel. 

Muriel Sparks, The Girls of Slender Means, 1963

Read because I have no idea why. Maybe it was on the recently-returned shelf at the library?

A cuttingly elegant little book that starts off as a satire of youth and morality, set in 1945 London between VE and VJ days at the May of Teck Club, a hostel for young women of in need of “Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection”, and ends as a small tragedy. I've read a lot of mid-20th0century British women writers over the past few years (Claire Mabey has been a real reading inspiration in this space) and I rather love their style, all perfectly formed sentences and brutal emotional denouements. I was gratified to hear Patrick deWitt extoll their graces at the recent Writers Festival in Wellington.

% Lois Lowry, The Windeby Puzzle, 2023

Read because of an NYT review (above)

A totally unexpected master class in what it is to be a writer, exploring and crafting a story from hints of history. 

I love a good bog story (Margo Lanagan, Treacle Walker). When I read about this book — inspired by the Windeby Child, an Iron Age adolescent found by German peat-cutters in 1954 — I was immediately excited. I expected something immersive, folkloric, atmospheric, sad. 

Instead, Lowry delivers a brilliant and generous explanation of what it is to be a writer, who picks up the bones (sorry) of an idea from history, and then crafts it into a narrative. She shares two interlocked stories about the Windeby Child, framed by a series of direct addresses to the reader, explaining what she is doing in each story, and why: what us or isn’t possible in each story, and how it makes her feel. The book lays open the process of writing and, tacitly, of reading. I can imagine if I were 11 or 12 I would be blown away by this laying bare of magic. 

Interestingly, the first third of the book I was deeply resistant to this approach (I wanted that folkloric magic!). And then I was gripped, and impressed. And today I'm still thinking about it.

# Anna Smaill, Bird Life, 2023

Read because Anna works with us at Te Papa, plus also keeping an eye on NZ writers.

I always feel dorky telling authors what I think about their books, but this is what I sent to Anna after finishing Bird Life:

Congratulations on your longlisting for the Ockhams. I was reflecting on this last night while reading your book. There are some absolute barnstormers on the list – Emily, Eleanor, Catherine. I was thinking about how gung-ho they all are – so pacey, and with some quite broad characterisation (in the case of Birnam Wood that feels satirical of course; Pet carries its recent-past research really lightly and with Lioness, it’s the cringey moments that bring the book into high definition for me). Bird Life is more like a watercolour – not in the sense of being delicate at all, but that it feels like there’s no room for mistakes. Every word, very evocation feels so carefully weighed and placed: like those stories you read about beautiful mosaics, where the tiny stones are laid just right, so as best to reflect the light.

# % Rachael King, The Grimmelings, 2023

Read because I was always going to, and because I got to interview Rachael about this at the Writers Festival in Wellington in Feb.

I'm working on a proper article about this. For now: what a satisfying book. It's eerier than I expected (King gets her love of folk-horror in here). Finishing it for the first time, I was struck by how comfortable some of the familiar forms of the storytelling are, and then how fresh other aspects of the book feel. There is a missing dad, for example - quite common in kids and YA lit - but there's also a closely described real-life setting, a detailed depiction of a South Island horse-trekking business. There's a love of words and the emergent power of language that if you're a "bookish" kid you respond to so strongly at this age - and there's also a thoughtful consideration of what it means to import a foreign mythology into an Aotearoa New Zealand landscape. 

Lydia Davis, Our Strangers, 2023

Read because the fact that it's a new Lydia Davis is reason enough.

I tweeted while I was reading this that Lydia Davis feels like memes for poetry lovers. I made the mistake of borrowing this from the library and trying to read it like a book. That's not how you should read Davis, you're meant to sip not skull. 

% John Masefield, The Midnight Folk, 1927

Read because another book linked to The Dark is Rising on the Backlisted podcast, I think.

This was a conundrum. The Midnight Folk is a quest tale: a lonely little boy stuck on a country estate with his distant guardian and mean governess is sent on a treasure hunt, assisted by the night creatures, including Nibbin (the good cat) and Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot (the local fox). Some gorgeous set pieces and fancies are packed into a "narrative" that seems almost willfully wandering and obtuse. Would make a gorgeous animation.

Alix Harrow, Starling House, 2023

Read because spotted on the shelves at Good Book Shop

A two hander, this one. The set-up and first half were a propulsive delight, perfect for a Netflix series, all spiky characters, hidden motives and back story. The second half though was overly convoluted and lost the fun pace.

# % Ann Scott-Moncrieff, Auntie Robbo, 1940

Read because I picked this up at Hatchards in London because the blurb was so appealing.

Ann Scott-Moncrieff died at just 29, leaving behind her author husband and three children. Her short writing career took place mostly over the Second World War. Auntie Robbo, rejected by her English publisher as “too Scottish” was then published in America but all the comp copies were lost when the ship they were traveling in was torpedoed in the Atlantic; most copies of an earlier book were destroyed when her publisher in London was bombed. 

It's a truly delightful book. Auntie Robbo (81, energetic, hedonistic, “totally transparent” by which the author means completely obvious in her motives and her pleasures) and her orphaned great grand-nephew, 11 year-old Hector, are living a very contented life in their home Nethermuir, twelve miles out of Edinburgh. Their happiness is suddenly imperiled by the arrival of Hector’s long-forgotten stepmother Merlissa Benck, who lands upon the household and rapidly decides Auntie Robbie is mad as a hatter and Hector would be much better off at public school. So Auntie Robbo and Hector do a runner, launching themselves on a rollicking adventure in the Scottish highlands, picking up three extra (largely homeless - this was a really interesting detail, kind of like the Fossil sisters in Ballet Shoes or Sara in A Little Princess, an example of how often kid's lives were depicted as precarious in earlier children's lit) children and a tinker’s wagon along the way. Much food is eaten, scrapes squeaked through, weather endured, talents discovered and good sense expressed until we reach a happy ending with Miss Benck happily dealt to and Auntie Robbo and Hector’s happy way of life restored. 

It’s like a much less cruel Roses Dahl, with an eccentric old lady who expects the world to confirm to her expectations and a gaggle of children who joyfully bob in her wake. The Scottish setting is lovely, and the scattering of Scottish words a pleasure. It sits in that genre of children's books where the key adult character, rather than enabling the action through their absence, enables it with their presence (see also The Explorer in Katherine Rundell's The Explorer below).

I do have to make a dash of racism warning. A great pity, because the book otherwise stands up so well.

# Hilary Mantel, Vacant Possession, 1986

Read because a Mantel I hadn't read! I have a policy of not being upset by the deaths of people I don't actually know, but I made a selfish exception for Mantel and A.S. Byatt, I would've liked both to have had another 50 years of writing life.

Vacant Possession is grimy, funny and malevolent. It feels like a blueprint for Beyond Black, one of my five favourite Mantels: it has all the sensuousness detail that makes the Wolf Hall series so seductive, but set in the grim environs of 1980s Britain. A wonderful black comedy.

Emma Cline, The Guest, 2023

Read because glowing review in the NY, I think.

A frictionless book. I’m interested that it’s received so much attention and praise. I think it’s very “American” — it’s a kind of examination of class which is actually of wealth. It runs on themes of risk, precarity and social manipulation but with a curiously distanced, numbed tone. Compulsively readable though, I very rarely achieve an “all in one sitting” but I polished this off on a Sunday morning. Reminded me of R.F. Kuang's Yellowface in that I felt a bit icky for swallowing it down so fast.

% Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass, The Lost Library, 2023

Read because I'll read anything by Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me lives in my forever top 10 books. 

Can you read too many children's books that hinge upon a burgeoning love of reading and writing and libraries? Perhaps. Nonetheless, this is a charmer. It's a mystery for middle-grade readers and while the "mysteries" become clear quite quickly, the gentle exploratory tone, the easy likability of the characters, the charm of the ghost story and the creation of Mortimer the cat - a great addition to the canon of animal narrators - make up for that. A good book to read as an adult if you're thinking about how children's books are constructed for their readers. 

Brandon Sanderson, Tress of the Emerald Sea, 2023

Read because another recc from the Unity Books display. 

I've never read Sanderson and I don't really know how he fits into the fantasy world. Tress is an obvious homage to The Princess Bride with touches of Neil Gaiman's Stardust and some Pratchetty punnery. Inventive, touching in places, a bit obvious. Having said that, at this time I needed something unchallenging and this fitted the bill. 

% Kate DiCamillo, The Puppets of Spelhorst, 2023

Read because I don't devour Dicamillo instinctively but I read and listened to some wonderful interviews with her last year, and I did really enjoy her previous book, The Beatryce Prophecy

This is the first of a projected trio of novellas, short contemporary fairytales. It is one of those deceptively deep little books, a beautiful piece of writing, sad and gratifying.

% Katherine Rundell, The Explorer, 2017

Read because Rundell is all the rage and her latest Impossible Creatures is still on my to-read stack, but I found this on the library shelf recently.

Rundell is immensely respected & popular as a children’s book author (this is only my second book of hers, following the bio of John Donne). I’ve heard her speaking on podcasts more than I’ve read her. 

The book is charmingly old fashioned in some ways (four kids crash land in the Amazon, have to overcome their own fears and their uncertainties and assumptions about each other in order to survive & plan their escape). There is a mysterious and irascible adult who has to be compassionately unpacked. Rundell is very good at the animals of the Amazon — as friend, food and foe. 

There are several heavily delivered themes in the book. There is “confront your fears, with kindness”. There is “colonial exploration is colonial exploitation”. There is “paying attention is a your duty to the vast and beautiful world”. There is “wizened hearts can be rehydrated”. There’s maybe a bit too much tell-not-show going on. 

The writing though is wonderfully lucid, by which I mean it generally stays out of the way but is occasionally also quite beautiful. I did get a bit misty-eyed at the end though so you know — The Explorer definitely does the job.

Saturday 1 April 2023

Alan Garner, The Owl Service

 I wonder if I would've loved The Owl Service the way I just have, if I hadn't (a) only just read it now, as a 43 year-old and (b) it wasn't only my second Garner, after reading Treacle Walker over the summer break?

The Owl Service is one of those childrens' books I've always had a shadowy, but baseless, perception of. Whenever I've seen the book mentioned, I've had a mental plot picture of a group of plucky children (pre-teen), out in the night in the English country-side (shading into the wilds of the forest) and a flight of owls streaming through the dim sky, back to their hollow oak (do owls hang out in groups? also that hollow oak is totally sourced from the owl in Mrs Frisbee and the Rats of N.I.M.H.). 

Naturally, it's not anything like that. Nor is it anything like the rather bitter Guardian reader-contributed review that pops up when you google "Owl Service reviews" which opens "The Owl Service tells the story of Alison, Roger and Huw who discover a mysterious dinner service in the loft" and concludes "Not one of the best reads ever, but take a look anyway. Preferably get it from a library not a bookshop, as you probably won't read it again."

Instead, it's an elliptical collision of ancient Welsh legend and 1960s youth culture and class war, set in an isolated Welsh valley, played out largely through dialogue and potentially deeply frustrating if you're not content to pass by all the things Garner leaves unsaid, and instead hone in on what is given to you.

What I loved about Treacle Walker was the timelessness of it: not in the sense of being a story for all time (The Owl Service is pointedly more than) and more in the sense of it being very hard to allocate a time period for it. The Owl Service is thoroughly located in the 1969s however, and Garner makes no attempt to disguise technology (phone booths, portable record players) or slang.

It is the story of Alison, Gwyn and Roger (though arguably just as much so of Roger's father Clive, who has married up by virtue of his bank account to Alison's mother ("her people were surprised"), and Gwyn's mother Nancy, hired on to return to the valley as cook and housekeeper for the family's summer holiday, and Huw Halfbacon, the mysterious man of all jobs who maintains the property). And it is the story of how they are drawn without volition - by the power of the valley - into playing out an ancient legend of love and jealously, of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd, the wife made for him out of flowers, who fell in love with his friend Gronw Pebr. The lovers murdered Lleu, who was brought back to life by magic, and then slew Gronw by casting a spear through him and the boulder behind which he was sheltering, at which point Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl to punish her. 

Garner doesn't go into anything as crass as a time-loop or time-travel (although time is allowed to loosen in the narrative); instead, we watch as the three lead characters both detect the lines of the story and are compelled to play it out. At the same time they are detecting the traces of the story as it has played out before in the generations before them.

The aspect of the book I loved though - which I doubt every much I would've appreciated if I had read it as a young teen - was the class battle that plays out through it. Nancy, with direct spite, and Huw with more humble misgivings resent and dislike Clive and his wife, who play lord and lady of the manor - at the same time, Clive talks Nancy down, pays her off, and belittles Huw. And Nancy's son Gwyn is that class-breaking striver, the smart kid sent to the grammar school, who secretly buys elocution records to help pull himself up through the social classes and out of Welsh rural life. The battles between Nancy and Gwyn over his aspirations, the code-switching and anger played out between Gwyn, Roger and Alison, are in some ways the truly timeless aspect of the book, the time capsule you pull out to understand other people's lives.

In his postscript, Garner repeats his career adage: that he does not devise stories, but unearths them "the sensation of finding, not inventing". While the story may have been gifted to him through years' of experience, acquaintance and chance, Garner's spare language, incredible ability to create a tautly compelling environment out of air and rocks, his comfort with leaving chunks of the story unexplained (what is going on with Alison's invisible mother??) bring the book into being. I don't think kids today would like it at all. I absolutely loved it. 


For a recent riff on similar subject matter but with a more lush, 1980s-inflected delivery, I love and continually recommend Garth Nix's The Left-handed Booksellers of London

Thursday 19 January 2023

Alan Garner, Treacle Walker

In her extended essay Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Katherine Rundell writes:

When you read children's books, you are given space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.

Rundell also cites W.H. Auden: "There are good books that are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children."

The first time I read Alan Garner's Treacle Walker (to my shame, my first Garner ever), I read it not as a children's book, but as a child - placing my trust entirely in the author and the world they had created. Under this kind of reading the book was full of wonder, its world self-contained yet depthless, and the journey of the child Joe mythic and magical.

In my second reading, I came armed with recordings of book festival talks and online reviews, details about archaeology, particle physics and the philosophy of time. The mythic resonances of the first reading faded into crossword puzzle solving. It was like those moments in children's literature where one character outgrows the pluripotent world of childhood, and trades off imagination and make-believe for membership of the adult world, as if they'd sacrificed one of their senses in order to access the privileges of being grown-up. 

The first reading was eminently preferable to the second. It was a return to the reading of my childhood - Puck of Pook's Hill, The Sword in the Stone, the Narnia series (before my evangelical uncle ruined them) - when I read with the hope that one day, maybe, just maybe, something magical would happen to me. And even at that age I absorbed the lesson that magic comes with a price, that this is the justice of magic: you will have to choose between your old life and the new life you are offered, between safety and adventure, between being part of the story, or living out your little life ignorant that a story is even happening. A child's life does not usually feature many meaningful decisions: children's literature empowers children to practice decision making that might affect the whole universe.

Treacle Walker is the story of Joe, who has an improbable existence: he appears to live alone in his ancient-sounding home (his bed is on top of the chimney cupboard, the windows are mullioned, when his head aches he reclines on the settle - I still don't know exactly what a "settle" is and in honour of my childhood reading I'm not going to google it, but instead wait for another book to tell me one day), with little to occupy his time aside from marbles and archaic comic books ('Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit' being his favourite). He tells the time by the daily passing of a single train at midday. He is something of an invalid - he's not meant to be out in the sun, distances tire him, and he has a lazy eye, and must keep a patch over his strong eye to make his weak eye work harder.

The story is set in motion by the arrival of a rag and bone man, the eponymous Treacle Walker, in Joe's yard, who trades Joe his choice of pot and a stone for a pair of worn pyjamas and a lamb's scapula from his museum of natural history oddments:

The chest was full. Bedded in layers of silk, there were cups, saucers, platters, jugs, big and small: coloured, plain, simple, silvered, gilded, twisted; scenes of dancing, scenes of killing; ships, oceans, seas; beasts, birds, fishes, whales, monsters, houses, castles, mansions, halls; cherubs, satyrs, nymphs; mountains, rivers forests, lakes, fields and clouds and skies.

'Choose,' said the man. 'One.'

Joe chooses a plain china pot, adorned with blue writing: the least, the smallest, the cheapest of the wares on offer. It was previously home to some kind of ointment called 'Poor Man's Friend'. In exchange for his clothes and bone, Treacle Walker gives him the pot and a stone - a donkey stone, palm-sized, incised on one side with a simplifed figure of a horse, used to polish a doorstep. Two talismans thus enter Joe's story, and from here the adventure - not physical, but in place and time and knowledge - unfolds.


For those who have read the book. Treacle Walker left me tingling on my first reading, all my deep-housed childhood reading synapses firing. I was thinking about Kipling, and children being educated by ancient English beings; about T.H. White's Wart, who is taught about the world by the ancient and elemental Merlin, for whom confusion and not-knowing is simply part of the learning process; about Ursula Le Guin and children's introductions to the mysteries of time, space, and emotional justice. About Susan Cooper, who I came to late, and those writers, like Garth Nix in The Left-handed Booksellers of London, who pull on the elemental magic of the British Isles. 

I read Treacle Walker as the story of a child coming into his fate: of being prepared by two guides to take up his role in an ancient system of caring for time, place and the old stories. It touched a fundamental romanticism I didn't even quite realise I still held so deeply from my childhood. The book is filled with motifs - the sickly child, the magic ointment, the bewildering guide, the dewy grass and silvery moon - that are less tropes and more the ingredients for a magical spell, and powerful, magical storytelling. There are touches that feel utterly Garner: the bone flute is one (and the subject of a very beautiful lyrical passage), the battle between contemporary science and magic in a visit to the optometrist (workaday science loses) another, and the comic book sequences which are my least favourite part of the book, which feel like they're there to clunkily manifest a thesis about the nature of time and space.

I read the story first as a legend where a child must sacrifice their innocence and their small comfortable place in the surface world, in order to become part of the deeper world beyond, which holds that unseeing surface world together. My second reading came cluttered with experts' insights about Garner's interest in particle physics, his restoration of a centuries-old medicine house, theories about time. Maybe that reading comes with more admiration for the book and Garner's work, but it sucked out all the wonder. I'm going to discard that second reading, and hold instead on to that first.

Monday 16 January 2023

Catherine Chidgey, The Axeman's Carnival

Is The Axeman's Carnival the great New Zealand novel? I know it's not a question we ask but for me - Pākehā New Zealand, child and grandchild and great-grandchild of farmers - maybe it is.

One review I read located The Axeman's Carnival in the canon of literature written from an animal's perspective, which had me puzzled. Watership Down, White Fang, Charlotte's Web, Dick King-Smith's The Sheep-Pig (all books I adored as a kid / teen) and Ernest Thompson Seton's The Biography of a Grizzly (the very first book I remember having an emotional reaction to) are all told in the third person. Try as I might, I cannot think of any other adult novel with an animal first-person narrator apart from Anna Sewell's Black Beauty:

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master's house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.  
While I was young I lived upon my mother's milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.

The Axeman's Carnival also opens from first memories, first sensations, with Chidgey's incantatory tone sucking you straight into the not-human world:

A long long time ago, when I was  little chick, not even a chick but a pink and naked thing, a scar a scrap a scrape fallen on roots, and wriggling, when I was catching my death and all I knew of sky was the feel of feathers above me, the belly of black as warm as a cloud above me, when I was blind, my eyes unsprouted seeds, my eyes dots of gravel stuck under skin, when I was a beak opening for nothing nothing nothing she lifted me into her pillowed palm.

The pillowed palm belongs to Marnie, wife of Rob, the young farming couple trying to force a living from the ungiving landscape of a Central Otago sheep station. On the block of land next to them is the cherry orchard owned by Marnie's sister Ange, her husband Nick, with their new baby and the sisters' acid-tongued mother Barbara. 

Marnie raises the fallen chick, who she names Tamagotchi (Tama for short). From a box pierced with airholes in the laundry, Tama graduates to Marnie and Rob's own empty nest, the vacant nursery that sits potently in the centre of the foundering old villa, of their marriage, and of the story that Chidgey unwinds. 

Tama lives in both world, absorbing all the language of his human household (song lyrics, Marnie's endearments, farm talk, talkback radio callers, the dialogue from the crime shows Rob watches on the telly to unwind) and listening to his original family too:

From the windowsill I could see my flock in the distance, and hear them, and I tried to tell which birds were my mother and father: little bits of black and white, dark and light, too far away. One day I thought I heard them singing for their lost chick, but every family lost half their chicks, and all parents sang for them, and the voices might have been the voices of of someone else's parents.

While Marnie falls for Tama, for Rob he becomes another target for the seething resentment that lies under his skin at all times. Pressured, Marnie releases Tama back to his family, and his father swoops in to reclaim him - There is my son. My son has come back from the dead. He fell from the nest and he did not die. My son is alive. Come to me. Come come come.

So Tama is brought back into the nest: the emptier nest now, his brothers and his mother both gone - death by car, death by cold. His father raises him and his sister, the surviving nestlings, teaches them to stab grubs in the ground, to wipe the sting from a wasp, to smash snails from their shells. 

I learned how the wild worked: where to take shelter, and what voice the adults used when another flock tried to invade. I learned to behave. I learned my place. I learned to leap octaves and to sing two notes at once.

But Tama "belonged and did not belong, and I was bird and not-bird". He gazes down on the yolk-yellow house he had been raised in. And he feels the pull of Marnie, his mother, his only mother: he choses to return to her. And from his bird throat he brings forth the first of his human words: her name.

Changeling, foundling, child-narrator, jester: Tama is our eyes and ears and voice throughout The Axeman's Carnival. Two storylines intertwine: Tama's rapidly growing grasp of English and eventual social media stardom (from a few casual posts on Twitter of Tama's cute outfits and catch-phrases springs a cottage industry of merch and sponsorship opportunities), alongside Rob's pursuit of his tenth golden axe at that year's woodchopping competition. These stories are played out across a fraying marriage, the harsh life of farmers, the intensity of at once living too close to your family and being surrounded by empty space but - for Marnie - having little space or safety of your own. Through this Chidgey weaves the drama of Tama's original family: his dominating and cold-hearted father, his curious and selfish sister, his father's next set of nestlings, better than those who preceded them.

Although the story is often troubled (Rob is jealous, suspicious, and free with his hands when he's had too much to drink) Chidgey is also frequently hilarious. Tama as narrator reports to us what he sees and hears, without judgement or interpretation, whether that's Barbara's sniping or the adulation of the foreign tourists who start searching out the farm to meet their Twitter crush. It's a truly rollicking story, both High Country gothic and pop-culture parody. 

But what I found myself appreciating most about The Axeman's Carnival - perhaps enhanced by reading the book whilst staying in rural Hawkes Bay, in a house on dry hillside under a stand of pines occupied by its own magpie families - was the portrait of farming life, so familiar to my ear even though I've not lived on the farm since I was 18.

The book is a striking and evocative portrait of the pressures and isolation of farming life, and I found myself following Rob in the book with a welling of empathy for all those farming men I've ever known. Victim to the weather, to the regulators, to those buggers in the city. Falling meat prices, falling wool prices, threat of drought: Rob is watching his own life play out in the same worn tracks as those of his parents, farming the same resistant land, searching for rain, searching for a break on the global markets, the sheer unfairness of busting a gut from before dawn to after dark every day of the year and still living on a knife's edge of liquid cash. The hardness this breeds, the inarticulate resentment of a life that feels so out of your control, the shackling responsibility for this bloody piece of land, and yes: the love and the fierce pride also. 

There are a couple of set pieces which are pitch perfect to my ear. There's the description of docking season, when lambs' tails are severed with a cauterising iron, rubber bands are applied to testicles to  strangulate the blood supply until they drop off (we used bands on the lambs' tails too, and the image of lambs bucking on the ground then scrambling to their feet, spronking off in uneven leaps and bounds, bawling for their mothers, is still so vivid in my mind). Not just the work, but the latent anger at townies and their privileged obliviousness:

"And now the overseas supermarkets are complaining about the meat." 

"What's wrong with it?" said Ange.

"Nothing," said Rob. "Nothing's wrong with it. But their customers have decided they're a bit upset about tailing."

"They don't want to buy meat from docked animals," said Marnie.

"Why on earth not?" said Barbara.

"Apparently it's cruel," said Rob. "Apparently we're monsters. They'd prefer to eat lambs slaughtered with their tails still attached."

Barbara laughed. "Ludicrous!"

"There's a lot of pressure," said Marnie.

"well," said Nick, "it's important to listen to the voice of the consumer."

"You know what's cruel?" said Rob. "Leaving a lamb with a tail so long it gets caked in shit, and then the blowflies come and lay their eggs, and then the maggots hatch and eat the animal alive."

Barbara shuddered, pushed away her bread roll.

"Sorry," he said. "It gets me worked up."

And also the descriptions of the work and care of lambing season, where paddocks are patrolled, small hot bodies fished slithering and steaming from their mother's vulvas, prolapsed uteruses pushed back in and secured with plastic anchors, motherless lambs brought home, warmed in front of the fire, fed by hand. In my house they were kept in cardboard boxes or the wood basket, until they were big enough to be moved to the crate in the basement (once home also to a litter of piglets whose murderous mother kept squashing them). Or the creation of more changelings - dead lambs skinned, then the crinkled yellow jackets of their hides tied around the bodies of orphaned lambs, to fool the bereaved ewe through smell and taste to mother them on. (Who wouldn't take a second chance, if they could make themselves believe in it?)

Another set piece comes late in the book, a crowd of men yelling as Ange and Marnie take to the stage to perform in a kind of talent show during the woodchopping competition:

But the men were in full voice now, calling, carolling. 'I like your dresses - they'd look awesome on my bedroom floor. Wanna see my baby elephant? Wanna see my hairy canary? I've got some wood for you, girls. Hey! I said I've got some wood for you! My name's Justin - remember that so you can scream it later. How do you like your meat? Hey girls! Girls! What's your favourite - standing or underhand? Nice legs, what time do they open? Are you free tonight, or will it cost me?

"Show us where the axe hit ya" was a favoured catch-phrase of my teenage years. And yet still, "Nice legs, what time do they open?" made me giggle.

As other reviewers have noted, the Axeman's Carnival sits within New Zealand's tradition of the cinema of unease, that gothic haunting of the settler imagination. It's full of symbol and threat and tension. But the utterly unique voice of Tama, his two-spirit storytelling: this is brilliantly developed and delivered, with a depth of reality that a film could never give you. One of the greatest works of storytelling I've read in such a long time, effortless and memorable. 

Wednesday 11 January 2023

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William. 
William has lately been through some very sad events - many of us have - but I would like to mention them, it feels almost like a compulsion; he is seventy-one years old now. 
My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have found grief for William as well. Grief is such a - oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you. 
But it is William I want to speak of here.
I'm not surprised people described themselves as "obsessed" with Strout's writing. Plain spoken and determinedly anti-atmospheric, Strout's writing has an obsessive tone, like a person who can't stop scratching their sores. The "compulsion" mentioned in these opening lines of Oh William! crops up over and over again: I need to say this though. I wrote about it in an earlier book, but I need to explain it more....

The voice is that of Lucy Barton, the title character of Strout's earlier book My Name is Lucy Barton, who also features in several stories in the collection Anything is Possible

My Name is Lucy Barton is set in a New York hospital where Lucy, the narrator, recovers slowly from a routine operation that has somehow become complicated. She is married, with some difficulty, to William, has two young daughters, and is visited for five days by her estranged mother, leading her to reflect on her painful, isolated and abusive upbringing in rural Illinois. Oh William! picks up several decades later. Lucy is now mourning her second husband, David; she is a successful author, still living in New York City; her daughters are grown and comfortably married; her mother and William's mother, Catherine, have both died and her first husband William is now married to his third wife, Estelle, and has a 10 year-old daughter, Bridget. Lucy and William remain companionably close, and lean upon each other.

Oh William! is narrated by Lucy, but the book's plot and her movements in the story are driven by her ex-husband William. Indeed, the question of whether we really make any decisions about our lives, or more  slide almost imperceptibly from the mental imagining of a path of action into its physical enactment is a core theme of the book:
I was thinking about the year before I left William how almost every night when he was asleep I would go out and stand in our tiny back garden and I would think: What do I do? Do I leave or do I stay? It had felt like a choice to me then. But remembering this now, I realised that also during that whole year I made no motion to put myself back inside the marriage; I kept myself separate is what I mean. Even as I thought I was deciding.
Oh William! centres on two things that happen to William: his third wife first gives him a gift that accidentally cracks open his family narrative, and then she leaves him. These events draw him and Lucy even more closely together, as she and their daughters support him through the grief of yet another marriage ending, and then a trip to research his mother's early life. While the action may not be determined by Lucy, it is her flow of consciousness we follow, as she weaves together the present moment and memories of her life, and her life with William and her mother-in-law. 

Lucy as narrator explicitly addresses us as reader, or witness, throughout the book - "I have already mentioned this ...", "What you need to know is ...", "What I mean by this is ...", "I have told you this before ...". Lucy's career and success are central to the unsteady sense of self-worth she has developed in her adult life, yet Strout keeps her career resolutely off-stage: while Lucy gives us details about the public life of an author - an unsuccessful event, being stranded on a book tour - at no point does she engage in the writing life in the book, say sit down to write something, talk to her agent. This contributes to the dislocated, or obscuring, or even wilful tone of the book:  
There is this about my own mother. I have written about her and I really do not care to write anything else about her. But I understand one might need to know a few things for this story.
Perhaps Lucy here is a writer off duty, able to tell stories not with the cleanliness and consistency needed for publication, but with the uncertainty and gropingness of real life communication:
Throughout my marriage to William, I had had the image - and this was true even when Catherine was alive, and more so after she died - so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for the breadcrumbs that could lead us home.

This might sound like it contradicts my saying that the only home I ever had was with William, but in my mind they are both true and oddly do not go against each other. I am not sure why that is true, but it is.
I find Lucy's voice to be deeply discomforting. "This is a delightful novel," one review I read concluded, "It rattles along so easily and agreeably in Lucy’s voice ...". There is no ease or agreeableness in Lucy's voice for me, but rather a combined relentlessness and panic. Lucy exists in a web of unearned pain from her childhood, and carefully nurtured hurts from her adult life. Every situation is picked over for the possible harm or slight embedded in it - only her daughters are spared. The massive shift in her life, from rural poverty to urban affluence, destabilises Lucy, and even in success and happiness she is plagued by a deep sense of her own invisibility:
Please try to understand this: 
I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me. 
I feel invisible, is what I mean. But I mean it in the deepest way. It is hard to explain. And I cannot explain it except to say  - oh, I don't know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say. I mean I do not exist in the world. It could be as simple as the fact that we had no mirrors in my house when we were growing up except for a very small one high above the bathroom sink. I do not really know what I mean, except say that on some very fundamental level, I feel invisible in the world.
It is deep-set trauma and insecurity, to be sure, but traumatised people are hard to be around. Like a gimbal holding a moving camera, Lucy is constantly adjusting her viewpoint and her statements with almost a paranoid energy: as a result, there is no relaxation for the reader. The strength of the first person narrative is almost suffocating - Lucy expresses little curiosity and little joy: most characters are assessed according to her likes and dislikes, trust and distrust, and they disappear from the story once they exit her view. 

Oh William! is a short book, about many things - grief and loneliness, secrets and family life, social mobility and poverty, marriage and aging. It is at times almost brutally insightful. It suggests that deep love and great resentment are quietly normal states of any close relationship, neither remarkable nor contradictory. It is told in one of the most distinctive and accomplished tones I have read recently. It is not a book that gave me easy enjoyment, but it has lodged under my skin and got me thinking harder than anything else I've read this summer.

Tuesday 3 January 2023

Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble, The Raven's Song

We started up, all the ordinary evening songs for putting babies to sleep, for farewelling, for soothing broke-hearted people - all the ones everyone knew so well that they’d long ago made ruder versions and joke-songs of them. We sang them plain, following Mumma’s lead; we sang them straight, into Ikky’s glistening eyes, as the tar climbed her chin. We stood tall, so as to see her, and she us, as her face became the sunken centre of that giant flower, the wreath. Dash’s little drum held us together and kept us singing, as Ik’s eyes rolled and she struggled for breath against the pressing tar, as the chief and the husband’s family came and stood across from us, shifting from foot to foot, with torches raised to watch her sink away.

Margo Lanagan, "Singing My Sister Down", 2004, from Black Juice (pirated copy available online here)

They turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and her family, to the people who held her hands as she learned to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. She has played with the children who now peep at her from behind their mothers, has murmured prayers for them as they were being born. She has been one of them, ordinary. Her brother and sisters watch her flinch as the men take the blade, lift the pale hair on the left side of her head and cut it away. They scrape the skin bare. She doesn't look like one of them now. She shakes. They tuck the hair into the rope around her wrists.

Sarah Moss, The Ghost Wall, 2018

The bog skin is becoming her skin, the heavy-earthed water cool against the burning tight of the rope. The cold bog blood surges and flows in her, around her as her own seeps and blends. Voices are whispering in her ears now, on her tongue now, filling the night sky with warbled callings and seeings, with the knowings and tellings of those gone before. The stick twisting the collar tight around her neck loosens, just enough to keep the veil between the worlds open for a little more ...

Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble, The Raven's Song, 2022

In her truly excellent review of The Raven's Song, Rachael King observes that she came of age in an era when cultural production was dominated by the threat of nuclear war: Z for Zacariah, Children of the Dust, even Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows. With today's children facing an arguably even more terrifying future of climate catastrophe, King asks: "How do you write about this stuff for children without subjecting them to the nightmares we experienced as kids?".

King then recaps the thinking of several leading children's writers (honestly, this essay is a reading list, a writing treatise and book review all wrapped into one, Rachael's Newsroom reviews last year were just killer and I sincerely hope 2023 brings more of them): Patrick Ness's observations about the dark emotional worlds teenagers already live in themselves - 

darkness is where teenagers dwell, and if you ignore that “you’re leaving a teenager to face that by themselves,” says Ness. “I think that’s immoral.”

- Joan Aitken's advice that if characters in a children's book must dwell on some lesson, make it snappy; Katherine Rundell -

"children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best, it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka."

Or as Margo Lanagan said in an interview about her tender and brutal book Tender Morsels, which centres on incest and rape:

When it comes down to it, an explicit sex scene takes as much calculation and care as a restrained one. With either story [the interviewer had asked her about Tender Morsels vs a short story written for adult readers], I’m thinking more of the demands of the story than those of the audience. It wasn’t so much the YA audience that made Tender Morsels take the form it did. If I’d made all the rape and incest explicit, it would have become a rape-and-incest book; those events would have overwhelmed the story that I wanted to tell, which was about Liga hiding from the world in her personal heaven, and the effect that had on herself and her daughters. Suggesting that she had been through hell was enough; I didn’t need to put the audience through hell with her, whatever age they were.

The Raven's Song, then, as King concludes, "a masterclass in writing dark, difficult material for a child reader" and "a complex middle grade novel about terrible things, at once sad and joyful, foreboding and hopeful, and a lot less devastating than some dystopian books for older readers".

The book weaves together three timelines; an ancient moment, in which a girl is sacrificed in a bog, setting the chain of events into Long Time motion; an around-now, when a boy named Phoenix and his siblings are mourning their mother on the brink of a pandemic outbreak; and a near-term-ish future, where Shelby Jones and her best friend Davey are two of exactly 350 people living on exactly 700 hectares of fenced-off land: in reverse of our contemporary conservation moment, to allow the earth to regenerate human populations have (following a massive pandemic-related culling) been placed into closed communities, living 'kindly and ethical" low-tech lives, in zero-pollution conditions, so that the "honoured and natural world" can recover.

A hole in the perimeter fence leads Shelby and Davey out of their cloistered environment (and cloistered world view) and exposes them to their society's history, a massively expanded reality, and danger. In the tradition of the best child heroes, they are brave and curious, straining at the limits of what they know and what adults have told them is necessary for their own - and the communities' - good.

You could class The Raven's Song as an eco-thriller, I guess: it also has moments that have enough horror to reach my (admittedly, very low) tolerance. Phoenix has hallucinations that cross over into the real world ("Emotional reactivity to trauma," the doctor calls it. ... "Your sixth sense!" Gran calls it, and she talks about the great gift passed down through generations of their family.) and there is one recurrent motif that frankly gave me the shits:

Phoenix looked but there weren't any angels at all. Just a bunch of small, raggedy people with floppy, torn cardboard wings tied on with string, and little toy trumpets in their hands, all lined up with their snotty noses pressed at the windows waiting to get in. That was the first time Phoenix had seen something so strange that he knew it couldn't possibly be there. They aren't real, he told himself over and over as the angels banged on the window, louder and louder. They aren't real, and he ran around the house locking every window and pulling every curtain closed and when he got back to the kitchen his mum had just ... just stopped.

The Raven's Song is complexly plotted and the co-authors land the ending in a way that has all the satisfaction of nailing a tricky beam dismount. There's a rewarding set of detective-like clues that are resolved in the final pages, which I imagine would give attentive young readers that righteous sense of pay-off. Genuinely scary, transporting and empathetic. 

The book is also causing me to depart from my summer reading stack. Last night I re-read Lanagan's Singing My Sister Down which is just a perfect piece of writing, and I've returned today to Ghost Wall (it's almost impossible not to). I've added Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram as a re-read to my sub-stack of books to take on the road at the end of the week - not because it bears any resemblance to  The Raven's Song but because of King's discussion of those Cold War era children's books, which it so masterfully riffs off. It's a joy to have the time to let reading spool out like this, opening up the exploratory areas of my brain again after a working year of solving problems.