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.