Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

My Cousin Rachel

February 27, 2017

‘How was the night?’ the husband asks in the grey gloamy light of not-quite-morning.

‘I can’t really remember,’ I say.

We lie there together in silence. The husband clutches his phone, ready to press snooze when the shock of the alarm next jolts. I wonder how I have managed to slump into such an uncomfortable position, and try to recall how many times Ezra woke up to feed and whether or not Vita was up too. Ezra is guzzling hungrily, snuffling with yet another cold he has caught from his older sister. Soon she starts shouting from next door: ‘Wake me up now mummy!’ It’s twenty past six. I prod the husband. He rolls out of bed. And so the day begins.

the-orchard-book-of-greek-mythsIt is usually better once we are downstairs. Ezra grins away all open-mouthed and sparkly eyed. Vita is happy showing off how she can get dressed on her own – ‘let me want to do it’ – and then there is the relative peace of breakfast, as she distributes pomegranate seeds among us (her current favourite fruit because it is pink and also because it is Persephone’s fruit, and we are reading the Greek myths together, and Persephone is her favourite). The husband necks a coffee and races off to work in the hope that he might be back for bathtime. I stack last night’s wine glasses into the dishwasher and feel dimly grateful for having splashed out on a very expensive face cream.

How was the night? I can’t really remember. How were the first two months? I can’t really remember either. It is a blur of smiles and tears and general wonder.

I last wrote here after a terrible few days in hospital before Ezra’s late arrival. (The birth, by the way, was great: The midwives came round. Vita went to bed and we listened to her on the monitor as she arranged all her animals into ‘families’. We hung out with the midwives and ate pasta and chocolate biscuits, and talked about books. The husband inflated the birth pool. Ezra came out with his hand by his cheek. Then we got into bed, and when Vita woke up the next morning, she climbed into bed with us and met her little brother.)

the-weirdstone-of-brisingamenWhile I was in hospital I was sorely stuck for something to read. I needed something wholly absorbing and extremely easy to divert me from the gruesome sound effects of the ward. I tried a few children’s books and had moderate success with Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but it only lasted an evening. I remember lying in bed the next morning puzzling over what to read, alighting on the solution of something by Daphne du Maurier and plotting an outing to a bookshop, but no sooner had this eureka moment occurred when the doctors came round and discharged me.

Over Christmas, the four of us decamped to my mum’s house. My old bedroom there is still lined with my childhood books, and as I was scanning the spines one evening I spotted the clump of Daphne du Mauriers. I picked up My Cousin Rachel and was soon suitably immersed. I now see that it is coming out as a film this year, so I feel pleasingly (and surprisingly) on trend.

Having recently re-read Rebecca for Emily’s Walking Book Club, I would say that Daphne du Maurier is pretty damn good at creating women opaque with a balance of mystery and menace.

my-cousin-rachelThe novel is narrated by Philip, an orphan who was raised by his cousin, confirmed bachelor Ambrose, who is very jolly and kind and rich. Ambrose goes off to Florence, where he meets and marries their distant cousin Rachel. He dies not long afterwards in mysterious circumstances, the implication being that Rachel might have murdered him. When Rachel then comes to Cornwall, we – like Philip – are prepared to hate her and distrust her. Philip, however, in spite of his prejudices, falls victim to her womanly charms…

Du Maurier couldn’t have made Philip more naïve, open and daftly innocent. He is also headstrong and impulsive, and one is frequently grateful that he (and his family money) is still under the control of his guardian for the remaining few months until he turns twenty-five. His cheeks are always aflame, he doesn’t take anything that he can’t ‘seize’, and he says idiotic things like:

‘I have a shrewd guess … that the blessings of married bliss are not all they are claimed to be. If it’s warmth and comfort that a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well.’

When Rachel laughs at this, he notes: ‘I could not see that it was so very funny.’

Incidentally, du Maurier seems to have been somewhat preoccupied with men’s love affairs with their country houses. In Rebecca, Max de Winter is undone by his love for Manderley, and losing the house – Rebecca’s final act of revenge from beyond the grave – is what leaves him stuck drifting around soulless hotels feeling so miserable. He is far sadder about losing the house than losing his wife.

Philip’s innocence is a foil for Rachel’s dark mystery. She is all poise and womanly charm, dwelling in her candlelit boudoir, brewing her murky tisanes, dressed in black. Poor Philip doesn’t stand a chance!

But Du Maurier’s great skill is that she is constantly setting up our prejudices and then undermining them. We think of Rachel as a murderer, deviously trying to cheat Philip of his inheritance and ensnare his affection for her. Somehow, Du Maurier manages to spin it so that as well as thinking all this, we doubt it and simultaneously see Rachel as a widow in mourning for her husband, as a lady who is kind and affectionate towards childish Philip, and we note her responsibility in insisting on returning all the family jewels that Philip impetuously gives her. We are forever oscillating between two wildly different interpretations of her – with different bits of ‘proof’ each way constantly surfacing. Even at the very end of the novel, Rachel remains ambiguous. We never know if she killed Ambrose and tried to kill Philip or if in fact she nursed them through terrible illnesses, perhaps even saving Philip’s life.

It strikes me that Rebecca too could be either devil or angel: she does all sorts of terrible things, but only if we believe Max de Winter, who eventually admits to killing her. Likewise, in Rachel we have a woman whose story is told to us by a man, only it is all the more obvious that Rachel is an enigma to Philip, as he – like us – oscillates between seeing her as guilty and innocent. Perhaps the point isn’t in deciding either way, but in that Du Maurier gives these women such powerful, unresolvable mystery. In so doing, she prevents the men in her novels from understanding or controlling them.

There is more to say about this book, which is very gripping, very gothic, very menacing and strange and brilliant. But I’m afraid it has joined the sleep-deprived blur of the past two months and I had better admit that, if you were to ask me much more about it, I would have to say, just like whatever happened last night, ‘I can’t really remember.’

daphne-du-maurier

Daphne du Maurier – looking suitably fierce and mysterious

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

January 25, 2016

The Tiger who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

A very belated and very happy new year to you, dear reader. Today, the daffodils in the roundabout at the end of the road have burst into flower – Vita, in her pushchair, looked rather puzzled as I manically pointed to them in joy. Hooray, spring is on the way… and so, I hope you’ll be pleased to hear, are some thoughts on The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

I have been reading proper grown-up books – promise! – but I couldn’t resist writing about this children’s book. I think it haunts me so much because of a conversation I had in the bookshop, back before Vita was even thought about.

An elderly lady came in one day and asked me to find her The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Then she asked me to look up what year it was published.

I told the lady 1968, which felt slightly odd, because I suppose I’d always thought of it as sort of timeless – aren’t all classics? – and I briefly wondered what on earth children read before Judith Kerr created her tea-taking tiger.

The lady said that was the year she came to England from Czechoslovakia. A lot happened in 1968, she said. Then silence, as the full weight of her words sunk in, and I thought: what can I possibly say to someone who fled The Prague Spring? So I commended her on her choice of children’s book, telling her it was one of my favourites. The lady smiled and said it was one of hers too.

The Tiger who Came to Tea has become one of Vita’s favourites too. I have spent hours reading it to her over the past fifteen months, sitting together on the sofa, in bed, on the floor, usually in a static fuzz of exhaustion. In these peaceful moments of turning the pages together, I often think of the lady in the bookshop arriving in England in the same year that the tiger first arrived for tea.

Judith Kerr was a refugee too. She left Berlin in 1933, fleeing the Nazis with her parents – a journey she wrote about beautifully in her autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Children’s author Michael Rosen is not the only person to posit that her tiger could symbolise the Gestapo, who were likely to turn up at The Kerrs’ front door, unannounced and threatening. While the tiger certainly turns everything upside down, eating all the food and drinking all the drink, he also lets Sophie cuddle and stroke him, which makes me feel he is too friendly a tiger to be a Nazi.

Sophie cuddling tiger

Instead, I have come to think of the tiger as an outsider, like Kerr, and like the Czech lady in the bookshop. If the tiger does stand for a refugee asking to enter the country, then Kerr has picked a significant moment for his arrival, for surely there is no more quintessentially English tradition than that of tea?

T380 IM AW 21

Most of the book happens inside and the pages are white, pleasingly bright, as we move from Sophie’s kitchen to the bathroom, hall and living room. When Sophie’s Daddy decides they should go out for supper, however, we suddenly enter the world outside.

Tiger outside

It is always a shock when we turn this page and the background changes from white to black, as the world expands from Sophie’s home to the length of a street, but – crucially – the street is not scary. Though the world outside is dark, it is also full of light: there is the soft yellow glow of the street lamps, the lit windows of the houses, and the warm circle of the moon (you can’t quite see it in the pic above, sorry). There is a jolly red bus, and the colourful shop fronts of the High Street – a toy shop, a fishmonger, butcher, florist and dress shop – most of them with the proprietor’s names inscribed above. There is also a cat, stripey like the tiger, only shrunk down to a normal, less frightening, size. The world outside in 1968 – the world of the tiger and other outsiders – is shown to be not such a terrible, terrifying place after all.

If only the High Street today were such a cosy, comforting spot, lined with independent shops with pretty awnings. Instead we’d be more likely to find the cold strip-lighting of a supermarket, charity shop and a nail bar – not so rosy a scene. Similarly, at the start of the book when the doorbell rings and Sophie’s mummy wonders who it could be, the possibilities seem almost ludicrously outdated: the milkman, or the boy from the grocer on his bicycle with a basket. When the doorbell rings today, it’s probably a courier with an internet-ordered package, or the Ocado man, who is different every time.

In a way, The Tiger Who Came to Tea is about the wonder of shopping – for resolution only comes when Sophie and her mummy go shopping and replenish their supplies. Only Kerr’s portrait of consumerism in 1968, with its milkman, the grocer’s boy on his bicycle and independent High Street shops, is rather a lovely one, showing that shopping then wasn’t just about buying things, it was also a means of creating a community. (Where on earth, though, did they buy that tin of tiger food? Is this some weird forecasting of the online ‘everything store’ that was to come?)

When I read the book with Vita on my knee, nearly fifty years after Kerr wrote it, I mourn the loss of the feeling of safety and community which lights up the world outside. I think what a wonderful welcome the tiger is given in 1968, when he turns up to tea … and I think of the Czech woman who came to England then, and Kerr who arrived thirty-five years before, and the welcomes they received.

Next time the door bell rings, once we get over our disappointment at no longer having a milkman, we ought to wonder what sort of welcome we’d give a tiger who came to tea today.

Judith Kerr

The Dark is Rising

May 14, 2013

The Dark is RisingI began re-reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising quintet at Christmas. I was staying at my Mum’s and one night I found I was unable to sleep, having snoozed through most of the afternoon. Looking through the bookshelves of my childhood, filled with Beatrix Potter, Swallows and Amazons, the multi-coloured Children’s Britannica, and other nostalgic delights, I alighted on this slim collection of novels with way-out fantasy covers. I remember being so terrified by the cover of The Dark is Rising (the second in the series) that I couldn’t sleep with it turned upwards by my bed, and always had to leave it face down, preferably safely hidden underneath another book.

Over Sea Under StoneThat night I re-read, cover-to-cover, Over Sea, Under Stone, which is the first in the series. It is about the three Drew children who go on holiday to Cornwall. They stay in an old house, where they discover an old map and they soon find themselves on a quest for King Arthur’s grail. Funny how in children’s literature, when you go on holiday you tend to find yourself on a very exciting quest, whereas in adult literature, you go on holiday and either fall in love or discover something about yourself. Even now I’m a grown-up, I’d rather my holidays followed the first plot line.

This family adventure story that’s set in a Cornwall steeped in Arthurian legend is great fun, but it doesn’t begin to prepare you for the books that are to come.

The Dark is Rising, which I read a couple of weeks later when feeling poorly, is a terrifying coming-of-age story. It begins on Midwinter’s Eve, the night before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday:

It was then, without warning, that the fear came.

The first wave caught him as he was crossing the room to his bed. It halted him stock-still in the middle of the room, the howl of the wind outside filling his ears. The snow lashed against the window. Will was suddenly deadly cold, yet tingling all over. He was so frightened that he could not move a finger … there was only a dreadful darkness in his mind, a sense of looking into a great black pit.

It’s a brilliant description of terror, which we soon learn is an expression of the Dark. Will Stanton discovers that he is the last of The Old Ones, a force for the Light. He is about to embark on his first quest for the Light, helped on his way by Merriman Lyon, who we met in the first book.

This gives a new resonance to children’s common fear of the dark. Throughout the books, the Dark’s presence is often felt psychologically – a dark fug of fear not a million miles from J.K. Rowling’s Dementors – rather than physically. The Grey KingThis idea is explored again in the character Caradog Prichard in the fourth book of the series, The Grey King. Caradog is clearly not a good person, but Will suddenly understands the awful full implication of this:

Will was filled with an overpowering compassion: an awareness of what must inevitably overtake Caradog Prichard if he were not checked, now, for always, in this passion before it was too late. Stop he longed to call to him: stop, before the Grey King sees you and puts out his hand in friendship, and you, unwitting, take it and are destroyed…

Man’s ambition and weakness can be taken advantage of by the Dark for its own terrible ends.

In The Dark is Rising, Cooper is very good at depicting the challenges and contradictions of Will’s double life. One minute he’s the youngest child in a big family, sparring with his older brothers, saving up pocket money for Christmas presents, feeding the rabbits. The next he’s on a terrifying magical quest, trying to save the world from the forces of the Dark.

Of course Will’s situation is greatly exaggerated, but I remember a similar feeling from childhood of having a whole complicated imaginary world which was completely separate from adult reality. Whether it was from reading books, or playing games, or organising midnight feasts, there was always something going on which felt top secret, that the grown-ups wouldn’t understand and that had to be concealed from them at boring moments like supper or home-time. Cooper brilliantly captures this feeling of a child’s life being an intersection of different worlds.

GreenwitchThe Drew children re-appear, alongside Will Stanton, in the third book, Greenwitch, which is a kind of feminine Wicker Man. Then there’s The Grey King – every bit as terrifying as The Dark is Rising, when Will stays with some cousins in Wales, where he meets the mysterious albino boy Bran. Finally, there’s Silver on the Tree, which brings all the characters together in the ultimate test of good versus evil.

There is much to enjoy in this quest-filled quintet, but above all, I love the way the series is so firmly rooted in the British landscape, inspired by British stories and traditions. The Grey King, for instance, centres on Welsh tropes. At the heart of the story is the Brenin Llwyd, traditionally a Celtic King who lives in the Snowdonian mountain Cader Idris. Cooper casts him as a force for the Dark. Will has to find a golden harp – a Welsh object if ever there was one – and there is even an important sheepdog.

Silver on the TreeIn Silver on the Tree, the tree of the title is in the Chilterns. This is the scene when they find it:

Then the last of the mist blew away, and in the dim light beneath the lowering sky they saw a line of trees before them, a wood of beech trees capping a round chalk hill – and, gradually appearing on the slope in front of the wood, a single huge tree … It was an oak tree, more vast and ancient than any tree they had ever seen.

I’m not sure there could be a more English landscape!

These books are about oak trees and other trees and the folklore of English wildflowers and Welsh mountains. They are about Celtic myth and Arthurian legend, and about the Old Ways – ancient paths through the landscape that have magical powers of protection (Robert Macfarlane should take note).

Cooper often transports her characters from the present day to an ancient time, while keeping the place the same. It is a wonderful way of capturing the layers of history encapsulated in the landscape, or as Macfarlane would put it, the land’s ‘storiations’.

Susan Cooper wrote Over Sea, Under Stone when she was working at The Sunday Times in London. The rest of the quintet came later, however, once she’d moved to America. Cooper was very homesick and in an interview on her website she says:

I was so homesick that when I went home to Wales to visit my parents a few months after moving, my husband later said he was afraid I wouldn’t come back … My homesickness never went away. It bubbled up into The Dark Is Rising, a fantasy about the Light and the Dark that is at the same time intensely English, every inch of it set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up.

Perhaps this vivid conjuring of British landscape in the books helped to ease her homesickness. It certainly transports the reader to the various settings, making me long to go to Cornwall, Wales and Buckinghamshire.

I loved re-reading these books from my childhood and found they had definitely stood the test of time. I find children’s books are best read when feeling a little overtired or poorly – there is something about the imaginative quests and the elemental background of good versus evil which really takes hold of my mind when it’s already feeling somewhat unhinged from reality. I think next time I read The Dark is Rising sequence will be when I go on a staycation to Wales, Cornwall or Buckinghamshire. They would definitely bring a new resonance to the landscape and who knows, perhaps the holiday would take a more adventurous turn.

And for those of you who are either terrified by the old Michael Heslop covers or unimpressed by the current Penguin ones, you might be tempted by these completely beautiful editions with illustrations by Laura Carlin, recently published by The Folio Society.

Folio Society editions of The Dark is Rising

A Wizard of Earthsea

December 10, 2012

On the last Friday of every month – a night that when I was a teenager could only mean Drum n Bass at Fabric – now we go round to my mother’s for dinner. It’s a welcome chance to see my granny, older brothers, little niece and nephew and to eat chicken soup and play charades.

It’s also a chance to collect my books. The shelves of my old bedroom are crammed full of books. Books from my first year of university, books from school, but most of all, books from my childhood. Swallows and Amazons, Redwall, Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, Winnie the Pooh and a particularly lovely picture book about a cow called Daisy, who became a Hollywood star but got depressed and ended up returning to her farm in England. It seems ridiculous that so many of my books are where I haven’t been living for almost ten years. I long to have those books with me – and my mother longs to be rid of them – but our shelves are already groaning with books, not helped by the fact that the husband’s architecture books are so much bigger than mine.

So every month, I take home a bagful of the books that I particularly miss and cull a few old books from my new shelves to make room for them. (Incidentally, there is a nice article about culling books by Ysenda Maxtone Graham in the latest issue of Slightly Foxed.) Having already retrieved most of the classics from university, at the most recent Friday night dinner, I allowed myself to take some children’s books too.

It happened to be perfect timing, as only last week I was ill with a horrid cough and cold. And when I’m ill, I’m at my happiest reading children’s books. There’s something about the exciting storylines, the wild imaginative worlds, the deeply sympathetic characters going on vital quests and the good versus evil theme that chimes with a slightly feverish brain.

I read Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, a book which I adored when I was a nine-year-old, and many of the ideas from it lingered with me. I remember afterwards desperately wanting to learn the true names of things, convinced that I was a wizard, like the hero of the book. I’m also sure it was from this book that I learned the importance of facing your fears, rather than running from them.

Ged is born the son of a village bronzesmith on an island called Gont, but it quickly becomes clear that he is destined to be a powerful wizard. Off he goes with a wise old mage to his retreat in the mountains, but, being impatient, he decides to sail off to wizarding school (yes, this was written long before Harry Potter), where he does much better than everyone else. But Ged is a proud boy, and is easily riled by an older boy. Eventually they have a big spell off, and Ged, when summoning a spirit from the dead, accidentally unleashes a dark shadow, which nearly kills him. Once he recovers, his quest is to find this shadow and vanquish it. It is a quest that sees him encounter dragons, powerful stones and dark forces.

Really it’s a joy to read this book, to discover a whole imaginary world, with its strange island folk, dragons, magic and wizards:

In a land where sorcerers come thick, like Gont or the Enlades, you may see a raincloud blundering slowly from side to side and place to place as one spell shunts it on to the next, till at last it is buffeted out over the sea where it can rain in peace.

It really makes me grin to think of a raincloud being shunted around until it retires, exhausted, to rain over the sea. It’s these little quirks, these thought-through details which make it so convincing, and so intriguing a world.

Throughout A Wizard of Earthsea, the idea emphasised again and again is the importance of something’s true name, which is its name in Old Speech. If you are a wizard, once you can speak something’s name you can exercise power over it. I love this idea of the essence of something lying in its name – a potent way of expressing the vitality of language. Really it is a way of saying that words must be used well, with precision, with awareness of their many resonances, their echoing meanings. Interestingly, on Ursula K. Le Guin’s website, she has written the following words in a note to young writers:

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.

Magic in Earthsea – knowing the true name of something and using it with an awareness of its power – is not so different to the art of writing well. It all comes down to caring about words, and endeavouring to let them ring true. A brilliant writer weaves a spell with her words.

There is so much in A Wizard of Earthsea, so many powerful ideas, such a beautiful story. It certainly was an up-side to being poorly for a couple of days. Once again, having found the time to read a children’s book, I am left wondering why on earth we don’t all read them much more often.

I am also left feeling that while I might not have succeeded in my childhood ambition of becoming an actual wizard, writing is its own form of wizardry and one at which I am very happy to keep on beavering away.