Posts Tagged ‘Folio Society’

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

Advertisements

Good Behaviour

September 3, 2012

I really was shocked by Molly Keane’s novel, Good Behaviour.

It bobs along, all hunting, gardening and dancing, but then, just as you begin to sink into the relaxing comfort of this old-fashioned, grand way of life, out thrusts a hideously dark, utterly shocking occurrence. But the reader is not allowed to dwell on this horrible thing. Indeed we can scarcely process it before the narrative forces us to return to the shimmering surface of grand country life. It happens again and again, thrust after horrible dark thrust disrupting the frothy surface, until the two fall into an uneasy co-existence. The narrator, Aroon, now middle-aged and looking back on her youth, insists on focussing on the surface, but the reader can’t ignore the sinister goings on underneath.

I read Good Behaviour with the unnerving sensation of feeling my jaw actually drop when the first of these dark moments erupted. It was all the more shocking thanks to the way Aroon refuses to let the narrative even so much as pause to let us give these moments our full attention. I blinked in disbelief. These hideous occurrences scream out at you as you are ushered past, instantly vanishing under the carpet as your attention is pulled away to the next hunt or dinner.

It’s hard to write about these dark moments without giving away the plot and taking away the element of surprise. But here is one instance that happens early on and doesn’t give much away. Aroon’s father has returned from the First World War without a leg. A page or so earlier he has written back from the front about the death of Ollie Reilly, one of the servants of the house, who had fought with him and – back in Ireland – had had a romance with another servant, Rose. In the letter he wrote: ‘Tell Rose he died instantly; he never knew what got him’. A little later, we get this:

This was an interval in his recovery; later in the year he was to have his wooden leg fitted. In the meantime he must rest, he must eat. He did both, and drank as well, growing every day more irritable and rather fatter. He followed Mummie about the garden at first; he even sat in the studio and watched her painting, after he had absorbed the small amount of racing news in the daily papers. All the time he seemed sadly unoccupied, as indeed he was. He couldn’t ride. He fell into the river when he went fishing. Long afterwards I knew things were on his mind then. Reeking, new, they must have been terrible. He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying; when he talked to Rose, Ollie’s death seemed quite enviable, here and gone, out like a light.

Such things were so near and so apart from the honeyed life in Ireland. Every day was a perfect day that April. The scrawny beauty of our house warmed and melted in the spring light.

So we get the shimmering ‘honeyed life in Ireland’ full of ‘perfect’ days and beautiful spring light. We get a young woman observing her father following her ‘Mummie’ around like a lost puppy, seeming ‘sadly unoccupied’ because he can’t ride or fish, and growing plump and crochety. But snuck into the middle of this, contained in just a single sentence is the horrible fact that ‘He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying’. It is obvious to the reader that Aroon’s father isn’t ‘sadly unoccupied’, but that he is dwelling on the horror of war, of having shot his mutilated servant to put him out of his misery. Yet this awful thing which so preoccupies him isn’t spoken about, is scarcely even mentioned. The narrator wants to believe – and wants us readers to believe – that her father was only irritable because he couldn’t hunt.

In this disparity between the shiny ‘honeyed’ surface and violent undercurrent, Molly Keane has quite ingeniously pulled off the feat of rendering a gap between what is understood by the narrator and what is understood by the reader. To my mind, this is one of the cleverest things a novelist can do. The writer has to create a blinkered narrator, deliberately limiting their knowledge, while at the same time dropping sufficient hints of the greater truth for the reader to grasp it. It’s a tough balance to get just right – not too obvious, not too obscure.

This gap between the false surface and the dark thrust of tragic reality is why the narrator – and indeed the whole family – relies upon the ‘good behaviour’ of the title. When a tragedy occurs, everyone does their best to behave perfectly – to see who can cry the least, never mention it, ignore it and return to gardening or reading the Tatler. By forcing themselves to live in the surface, they try to make the surface cover up and suppress the underlying tragedy.

In Jane Gardam’s elegant introduction to this beautiful Folio edition, she tells us about an episode when Molly Keane’s six-year-old daughter wanted to weep at the death of her father. Apparently Molly Keane told her child, ‘We mustn’t let [the butler] see us crying.’

Evidently this rule of ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘not in front of the servants’, always acting in accordance with social mores, was experienced, and to some extent, followed by Molly Keane. Perhaps this is why she examines it quite so expertly in this novel. It is from first-hand experience that she has created these characters who adhere so impeccably to the code of ‘Good Behaviour’, and yet, by creating these dark jolting interruptions to the otherwise well-behaved narrative flow, she challenges the code. The reader can’t help but see that some things deserve to be spoken about, ought to be grieved over, mustn’t be swept under the carpet.

As the novel progresses, we see that Aroon has spent her youth learning, however uncomfortably, how to behave as socially impeccably as her parents. We can see how appalling the parents’ behaviour actually is – the mother cruel beyond belief to Aroon, and the father sleazing on to every woman in sight – and yet this is masked with their fantastically ‘good behaviour’, gliding along and looking the other way. Feat after feat of horrible cruelty is disguised and excused by good manners. It is like a more literary incarnation of that nightmarish character from Harry Potter, Dolores Umbridge, inflicting cruel pain from a fluffy pink frilly smiling exterior. And so we gather from the main body of the novel, the excuse for what must be one of the most shocking opening scenes in all literature.

Good Behaviour begins with middle-aged Aroon murdering her mother. She does this, however, in such a polite, well-mannered way – insisting on feeding her sick mother, who she has propped up on a million soft pillows, rabbit mousse – that you almost can’t believe it.

This polite murder is startling at the beginning, but by the end of the book you realise that really it is the very pinnacle of ‘good behaviour’. Aroon has developed manners so finessed, so smotheringly good that they really will allow her to get away with murder.

Good Behaviour is an extraordinary book. It is dark and lethal, but deliberately frothed up into something that appears to be comforting and palatable. I suppose it is like that fatal rabbit mousse which Aroon serves to her mother.

It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981, the year that Midnight’s Children won. I can’t think of two more different novels. Good Behaviour is so restrained, so poised, so preoccupied with what is unsaid; Midnight’s Children is a splurging explosion, madly exuberant, bursting on to the page with a million highly-charged words. Each novel is a masterpiece. While Good Behaviour might appear to be the less remarkable of the two, in fact it is just understated – a mark of really very good behaviour indeed.