Thursday, 25 February 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

THE MUSEUM OF MARY CHILD by Cassandra Golds Puffin Australia.

Here is the whole blurb from the back of this novel. I’m quoting it in full because it’s a model of its kind, telling you enough but not too much about a most unusual book.
Heloise lives with her godmother in an isolated cottage. Next door is a sinister museum dedicated to the memory of Mary Child. Visitors enter it with a smile and depart with fear in their eyes. One day, Heloise finds a doll under the floorboards. Against her godmother’s wishes, she keeps it. And that’s when the delicate truce between Heloise and her godmother begins to unravel. Heloise runs away. She journeys far but one day she must return to uncover the secret at the heart of her being.”
Cassandra Golds is Australian and this book has still to find a British publisher. Orchard brought out her lovely novel CLAIRE DE LUNE a few years ago, but this one is stranger and for slightly older readers and perhaps in these days when everyone is chasing the next vampire/wizard/robot/High School musical lookalike, it’s not going to be easy to make a commercial case for it. It’s very easy, though, to make an artistic one. Even today, there are, I’m quite sure, children (to say nothing of adults) who would fall in love with Heloise and get as much pleasure from reading about her adventures as I did.
Golds says in an autobiographical note that she read and reread Hans Christian Andersen as child and his spirit would be pleased with this book. There’s something Scandinavian about Golds’s imagination. I mean by this, it’s a fusion of the practical, the sensible, the rational with the seriously weird and fey - a mesmerising combination. Dolls are important in the story, and so is nature, but here again, the fairy tale atmosphere which is so brilliantly created by having the events take place in an unnamed country far away (which has snow!) and at an indefinite time in the past, is cut through with references to the modern and lit with flashes of humour. I’d bet the flocks of birds who help the humans, led by Merryfeathers, a blue budgerigar, are closely related to the ones in the Disney version of Cinderella. There are some glorious puns, including one you can only pick up on if you remember a certain kind of sweetie from the past.
The characters are out of a fairytale, too: Old Mother, who oversees a choir of twelve orphan girls (echoes of the twelve dancing princesses), Sebastian, who is a prince chained up in a dungeon, the terrifying and tragic figure of the Godmother, and Heloise herself, whose whole being slots into proper perspective only at the very end of the novel. There is love, adventure, friendship, terror, and all taking place in a landscape that’s there in front of our eyes from a bare minimum of description. We have a City, in which there’s a Prison and a Madhouse. We are given only a few details of each, but it’s quite enough, together with those ominous capital letters, to make us feel we are there. As for the eponymous Museum, I shan’t say a word about what it contains....
Special praise, too, in these days of the cheap and cheerful, to Puffin Australia for the care and attention that’s been lavished on the look of the book. It has a perfect cover, gorgeous endpapers and chapter heads and a truly beautiful font. I’m a fonts bore, I know, but I do deplore the rise of the sans serif style which publishers think gives a modern look to a book. Thank Heavens for a novel that announces its love of the old-fashioned to such good effect.
Who would read this? Anyone who loves Frances Hodgson Burnett. Any fan of the fairytales of Andrew Lang or Andersen or even Oscar Wilde. It would make a perfect book to read aloud, chapter by chapter, each night. That’s what I thought of when I was reading it: it’s exactly the kind of thing our housemistress at school would have read to us in pre-television days while we sat on the carpet in our dressing gowns embroidering traycloths with coloured silks in little skeins....this gives you an idea of how old I am.
I’m sure it’s possible to order books over the internet from Australia. I would urge readers to do just that. You won’t regret it. And maybe there’s a smaller British publisher somewhere (Quercus? Canongate?) who’d be willing to bring out a book that won’t sell in its millions but will touch and move and inspire those who do read it. It truly is not like anything else around at the moment. Please seek it out.

ALONE IN BERLIN by Hans Fallada Penguin Modern Classics pbk. £9.99

Hans Fallada is the pseudonym of Rudolph Ditzen, who died in 1947, shortly after he wrote this book. This edition comes complete with an account of the real-life case on which the novel is based as well as an afterword about the author.
It’s an account of what happens when a German couple, whose son, serving in Hitler’s army, dies in action. Otto and Anna Quangel begin a campaign which is meant to sow dissent among the citizens of Berlin. It’s intended to erode Hitler’s power and the power of the Nazi Party in every walk of life and lead to change and improvement. What actually happens when Otto starts leaving postcards with subversive messages on them in various buildings dotted around the city is the subject of this astonishing book.
We are given, in almost documentary style, the stories of many people who surround the Quangels: in their apartment, at Otto’s workplace, in Anna’s family and elsewhere, so that by the time the main action starts, we’re caught in a kind of spider’s web of relationships, and every thread leads straight to the Gestapo. Otto’s postcards, far from being picked up and inspiring revolt, get given, for all kinds of reasons, straight to the man who’s made it his job to hunt down the writer of these missives.
It’s not a thriller in the normal sense, and you pretty much know it’s going to end badly for Otto and Anna right from the start, nevertheless, the cat and mouse goings on, the betrayals, lies, evasions and the petty cruelties and privations surrounding every part of life at those times and in that place are brilliantly evoked. It’s a grim story, and yet, even in the grimness, human warmth and kindness and decency do shine through: in certain people, in certain ways. This is not about the death camps or the concentration camps. Rather, we share the day- to- day life of a city and some of its least important denizens and the ways in which they accommodate their existences to the demands of a ruthless and all-powerful tyranny.
It’s a novel which tells you things you didn’t know before, but it’s not only for educational reasons that I’m recommending it. It’s a moving, terrifying story about real people in dreadful situations and written simply and well. You won’t have read anything like this before. Do try it.

CASTLE OF SHADOWS by Ellen Renner Orchard pbk. £5.99

In spite of my small moan about sans serif fonts (see above) I did enjoy Ellen Renner’s debut novel very much. [PS written later in the day. I read the book in proof and I believe the sans serif font has GONE in the published version. Hurray!] It’s the winner of the 2007 Waterstone’s WOW factor competition for unpublished writers. Ellen trained as a painter and it would have been wonderful if she’d been allowed to illustrate this book with a few line drawings, because the world it evokes is a picturesque one: half Victorian, or Georgian perhaps and half something more Gormenghastish altogether.
Princess Charlie’s father does nothing but build castles out of cards. Her mother disappeared a long time ago, and Charlie is left to run wild in Castle Quale. She finds a clue to her mother’s disappearance and then the hunt, or maybe the chase is on. Charlie is helped by Tobias and Bettina but there is a whole cast of wonderfully-named villains and half-villains to contend with, including an evil Prime Minister called Alistair Windlass. It would be a shame to give away the ending but this story rolls along at a cracking pace, with one adventure following close on another; one narrow shave leading to an even narrower one. This is an entertaining and involving story and what’s more, one for both boys and girls. I’m sure there’s going to be a part two coming shortly. I’m looking forward to that.


Ellen Renner said...

Thank you very much, Adele, for the lovely review of Castle of Shadows. I'm sorry they sent you the proof copy - the sans serif was a printer's error. The actual book is a handsome object; Orchard have done a great job. There are a few illustrations on my website, The Museum of Mary Child sounds great. Will look it out.

Katherine Langrish said...

Looking forward to reading these!

Nicola said...

What a wonderful commentary on The Museum of Mary Child. I DID read it aloud to my 11-year-old daughter (thankfully she still values reading aloud as much as I do) and it was an entirely delicious, heart-rending and satisfying experience.
But, unlike Clair-de-Lune, she didn't then lend it to all her friends (so they could swoon together about how they loved it, which they did). Its strangeness seems to signal 'not for everyone'. And I suppose its girlishness precludes packaging it as horror (which worked, and was appropriate for, Coraline).
In my dream bookshelf I would, however, place Mary Child with Coraline, as well as those wonderful fairy and folktale collections by Ruth Manning Sanders. There must be a place for such books ... hope Mary Child finds one in the UK.

Anonymous said...

I'ts great that you're reviewing Australian authored books too - Cassandra Gold is a wonderful writer. I've just read 'The Museum of Mary Child' and adored it!

Misrule said...

Might I recommend the wonderful independent Sydney bookseller, Gleebooks ( I have no pecuniary interest in the shop—apart from spending vast amounts of my own money there!—but they are a wonderful bookseller and you can order from them internationally.

Lucy Coats said...

Adele--you are bankrupting me! If I go on ordering all the delicious-sounding books you review, I shall have not a penny left to my name and not a thread left to my back. I shall live in a house made of towering piles of books and the music of my life will be the fluttering of wind through pages. The House of Mary Child in particular sounds like a treasure worth digging to Australia for.

Lucy Coats @