Thursday, October 19, 2006
Seventeenth Century midwifery and old magic. Hallucinogenic powders and piskies in the hedgerows. Fake demonic possession and a real visit to the realm of the fairy, deep within a magical hill. In The Merrybegot Julie Hearn treads the line dividing earthy, physical realities from wild fantasy, and is more than happy to leap back and forth across it. The vividly-drawn characters and urgent plotline make this a gripping read, particularly when the witch hunt is gathering its horrible momentum. There’s a twist in its tail too, as the counterplot snakes its way to the New World, and finally to Salem, famous for its witch trails.
In I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, the worlds of Fairy and of England in the mid-seventeenth century again provide the parallel settings for the story. Coriander finds herself struggling against oppression and fighting for her life in both of these worlds. As in The Merrybegot, Puritanism and religious extremism are shown as hypercritical and self-serving creeds, taken up by corrupt characters burning with a lust for power. While The Julie Hearn uses folklore and spell-craft as source material, Jane Gardiner makes good use of some dark fairy tales. The distracted, grieving father and the wicked stepmother are familiar from Cinderella and related tales and are fleshed out in unflinching detail here. The notion of the fairy bride is another traditional motif, and is found in the Arthurian legends and elsewhere. There is a hard, glittering quality to the fairy world as described by Gardiner, a cold, cruel beauty that lends the book an enjoyably unsettling atmosphere. By contrast, but just as effective, Julie Hearn’s piskies are portrayed as ditch-dwelling creatures who bite the ankles of unwary humans and show their contempt for all and sundry by baring their dirt-encrusted buttocks at passers-by!
Both these books are well worth a read, and could be seen to have laid the ground rules for a new sub-sub-genre within children’s fiction - fantasy stories with a Seventeenth Century English historical setting.
Monday, October 02, 2006
At the Highland Children’s Book of the Year Awards on September 29th ( Worm In The Blood was on the shortlist for the longer novels - the winner was Stuart Hill with Cry Of The Icemark) there was a panel discussion in which the authors present (who also included short novelists Heather Dyer and Sophie Smiley) were asked to discuss what books they’d read as children and what they were reading now. Thinking about what to say regarding the first part of this topic, it struck me that my parents were a huge influence on my early exposure to books and language. Listening to the other authors I found I wasn’t alone in this.
From my mum came mainly poetry and Shakespeare. I can’t think what the context can possibly have been, but I’m sure I first encountered fragments from T.S. Elliot and Phillip Larkin, the closing speech from The Tempest, the funeral oration from Cymbeline, and much more, while seated around the tea table eating toast and waiting for Doctor Who (Patrick Troughton in those days) to start on the (black and white) TV.
My dad would always read to us when he came home from work, usually the serialised book that appeared in Treasure or Tell Me Why, two children’s magazines that he bought for us. But there were other somewhat stranger occasions. As a boy I suffered from insomnia. I was afraid of silence and for a long time had to have a radio on low at my bedside to avert the night terrors brought on by too much stillness and quiet. Dad was something of a night owl himself. If he found me lying sleepless and afraid in the small hours, he would decamp to my room where he would read aloud, this time not from the slightly earnest and educational pages of Treasure, but from C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels, which he edited on the hoof, leaving out any romantic interludes (which were of no interest to me) and concentrating solely on the vivid descriptions of bloody Napoleonic naval battles. He also read me short stories by the American humorist James Thurber. Stories such as The Night The Ghost Got In, which despite its subject matter, proved to be the perfect antidote to night terrors. I can remember the two of us, father and son, convulsed with laughter, struggling to keep from waking the rest of the household with our howls of mirth.
My dad died in May. I owe him a lot.
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