‘Pain and such triumph all mixed together’


This week my younger daughter has mainly been reading the loved/hated Rainbow Magic Fairy books; for my wider thoughts on these Smartie-like books (they appear to be a rainbow of colours but all taste the same inside) take a look at my previous post about fairy-themed books we’ve loved, more or less! I don’t blame her, though; it’s been assessment week at school (the teachers call them ‘quizzes’ but seven-year-olds aren’t that gullible!) and her sister was away for three days and two nights on a residential trip so a little comfort-reading was called for.

We also finished our read-aloud Borrowers marathon, or so I thought, having worked our way through all five books: The Borrowers; The Borrowers Afield; The Borrowers Afloat; The Borrowers Aloft; and The Borrowers Avenged. I think my favourite will always be the first one for its orThe Borrowers (A Puffin Book)originality and its ingenious details, both in the constructing of the worldview and culture of the Borrowers themselves and the practical genius of their turning the tiny trappings of our British manufactured and mass-produced existence to their own uses. There is something uncanny and never cute about the miniature Borrowers. Take, for example, the way they use a half nail scissor as a knife, a spear, a saw but always call it a half nail scissor, or an aspirin lid as a plate or tray but always call it an aspirin lid, borrowing their language along with their possessions. They are portrayed as former humans who have dwindled down to six-inch-high pockets of communities living on, and off, as it were, the fringes of the ‘human beans” similarly diminishing and endangered communities, that were vanishing almost as fast as the borrowers, the country house with its one wealthy inhabitant bedridden and inebriated while her last two servants keep on keeping the world of that empty house turning and the little village with its one policeman and it vicar-less church run entirely by flower ladies. Beyond the bounds of Firbank or Fordham the wider human world was spinning out of control, events hinted at by The Boy but incomprehensible to Arrietty and her family who can scarcely belive that human beings would kill one another and hopefully would never learn, like Kate and the reader, that The Boy himself died a hero in the fields of the Great War.

Nevertheless, the Borrowers, always triumph, fleeing from one disaster after another, using their own skill and fortitude to outwit circumstance, nature and the grasping couple who capture them and plan to display them in a glass-fronted house in a model village. The detail in which their tools, mechanisms and transport-systems are exhaustive and, just occasionally, almost exhausting to those of us who are not practically minded. But Arrietty, Homily and Pod’s story is so compelling that we are carried along with them, rooting for them at every turn and we sink back in relief to hear that they are finally safe and their enemies far away. Which is why I am feeling very ambivalent about the realisation that I’ve missed one. Going online to provide links for the books I listed above I discovered almost immediately that a sixth and ‘final’ Borrowers book, Poor Stainless was published in 1994. I immediately thought that perhaps I had missed this because I was by then, too old for the Borrowers, although I am fairly sure that I re-read them well into my teens. A little bit of further research reveals, however, that this is a separate Borrowers books, dealing with a boy borrower rather than our familiar Arrietty and was published in 1966 before being republished posthumously two years after Mary Norton’s death in 1992. I have immediately ordered a cheap second-hand copy but am waiting in some trepidation to see whether it is as good as the five books I already know and love…

My elder daughter’s reading has been somewhat interrupted this week by her trip to the woods of Kent where she has been abseiling, climbing high ropes, swimming and doing archery. She took with her Thursdays with the Crown by Jessica Day George, the book she is ‘up to’ in the Tuesdays at the Castle series. This is a fantasy series about Princess Celie who lives in a magical castle that grows new turrets, rooms, and wings on Tuesdays. When her royal parents go missing the castle and its mysterious architectural additions come to her aid. I don’t think much reading was gone done in the dorm-room but on her return she has whizzed through Jinks and O’Hare FunFair Repair by Philip Reeve which she said was ‘hilarious’ with fantastically ‘vivid’ illustrations by Sarah McIntyre. It is about a little girl called Emily who lives on the Funfair Moon and who has to lend a hand to save the day when a funfair inspection goes chaotically wrong. She has  also started Cadogan Square by Carol Drinkwater, a ‘My Story’ collection which tells the stories of two women: one a wealthy young lady struggling to find her independence at the end of the nineteenth century and the other a girl caught up in the Suffragette movement in 1909.

I have just raced through The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, a brand new book that I saw exuberantly recommended by Melissa Taylor on the excellent Imagination Soup blog:

Gidwitz’s writing is masterful. The story is bold, multi-dimensional, and fascinating with compelling, three dimensional characters. But there’s also the gorgeous artwork to consider. The pages are illustrated, or illuminated as you would say in medieval times, by artist Hatem Aly. The drawings are poignant, whimsical, random, and all together wonderful. Because, just like in medieval texts, the art only sometimes reflects the story and other times doesn’t. Which makes for a charming effect. (Look for the aliens!) […] And please don’t miss the author’s note at the end of the story — it’s fascinating and important.

In her Fall 2016 chapter books round-up Taylor claims ‘this is one of the best books of 2016, maybe the best’ plus it is set in Medieval France and, as I may have mentioned once or twice, we are big on the middle ages in our house at the moment so I ordered a copy immediately.

As soon as it landed on the mat I handed it to my elder daughter to read first and she began it very enthusiastically. However, as I sat next to her, I could see concern, worry and sadness pass across her face and very soon she decided it was a bit too sad and scary for the moment and sensibly set it aside. I picked it up. The story is an re-imagining of the historical events and places of Medieval France and is about three children, all social outcasts of Medieval France: a peasant girl; a mixed-race oblate; and a Jewish boy. Jeanne is a sort of Jeanne d’Arc figure (minus the armies) and she has a holy dog, Gwenforte, who was erroneously killed for protecting her as a baby but who came back to life years later and is now her faithful, but still very canine (despite her veneration), companion. William is the father of a French Crusader Lord and a Muslim woman who was abandoned at a monastery as a baby and brought up to be a monk. He is enormously tall, miraculously strong, brave and very learned. Jacob is a Jewish boy with otherworldly healing powers who flees his burning village when it is attacked by Christian hooligans. Jeanne is pursued as a witch after she starts having visions of the future and hanging around with a resurrected greyhound and also goes on the run. William is expelled from the monastery after a theological disagreement gets a bit physical. All three find themselves heading for Saint-Denis dogged by a band of ignorant jobbing knights, several church leaders and the mysterious narrator of the tale which is constructed as an alternative Canterbury Tales.

The book, like the middle ages themselves, is not free from violence, treachery, religious hatred and intolerance. Bad things happen and often they are perpetrated by characters who think they are doing the right and holy thing. There is death in this book and occasionally it is quite gory so I don’t think it’s suitable yet for my sensitive nine-year-old but this isn’t to say that other children wouldn’t enjoy it. If I had to suggest a target age-group I would say twelve to be on the safe side. As a reassuring spoiler, virtually all the ‘good’ or innocent characters who are killed in the story turn out to be alive and safe in the end but there are death-scenes aplenty and the reader doesn’t know at the time that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. That aside, this is a fascinating, exciting story which is exhilarating to read, a rollercoaster of thrills, anticipation, fear and pleasure. Not just battles and skirmishes, it is an emotional and intellectual rapids-ride as well and one that is sadly relevant today in its examinations of faith, religious freedom and intolerance, censorship, persecution, martyrdom and extremism in Medieval France. The burning of twenty-thousand Jewish books in Paris really happened under the direction of Louis IX and the tragedy and tumult that follows is a sadly contemporary comment on the recent religious censorship and violence that took place in Paris last year as Gidwitz acknowledges in his concluding Author’s Note.

Hatem Aly’s ‘illuminations’ to the book add layers of meaning and really enhance the reading experience. These are illuminations which, as Melissa Taylor suggests, do not always play by the rules of traditional illustrations. They are at times solemn and poignant and yet at other times they fully embrace the earthy lavatorial humour that was so much relished in the middle ages and which Gidwitz’s text nods to with the flatulant dragon and Gwentforte leaving a little gift in the King’s fireplace. Both Gidwitz’s story and Aly’s drawings seem to embody the ‘pain and such…such triumph…all mixed together’ that Jeanne realises is what ‘life is’.



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