Respites from reality

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In Elidor (1965), Alan Garner’s classic of children’s fantasy literature, four kids find a portal to another world in an abandoned church in Manchester. It’s no accident that the church is a ruined shell: as Garner has stated, Elidor is “anti-Narnian” by design, not only in that its parallel dimension is featureless by comparison to C. S. Lewis’s magical ice kingdom, but also because, in contrast to Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter in the Chronicles, Garner’s quartet returns to the gloom of mid-century Britain after a comparatively short spell in their otherworld. Their escape is temporary.

To a greater or lesser extent each of the eight books under review – all but one aimed at middle-grade readers, half of them fantasies, half in a more realist vein – offer their central characters imperfect respite from an everyday reality despoiled by environmental crisis, war, bereavement and family breakdown. In Katherine Rundell’s Impossible Creatures, the first book in a promised trilogy, our young hero, Christopher Forrester, is sent to rural Scotland to stay with his grandfather after his depressed, widowed father is called away for work. Christopher has a Snow White or Dolittle-ish way with animals, an “allegiance … to wild and living things” that has squirrels clustering at his feet and cats winding “figure-of-eights around his ankles”. It’s a little opening onto the numinous in a life that has so far been less than happy.

Out walking in the hills, Christopher meets Mal, a strange, panic-stricken girl who takes him through Rundell’s version of Lewis’s wardrobe, or Garner’s heavy church door – a phosphorescent aperture at the bottom of a lake. On the other side lies the Archipelago, “the last surviving magic place” where the creatures of myth – the unicorns, the dragons, the mermaids and manticores and chimaeras – that once roamed the planet still survive. Thousands of years ago the islands of the Archipelago disappeared in an act of magical self-preservation against a humanity seemingly intent on exhausting the world’s natural resources.

But the time is out of joint. The “glimourie” – the mysterious force, emanating from an Yggdrasil-like ur-tree, that sustains all magical creatures – is fading. Griffins have all but died out. The colossal octopoid monsters known as the kraken have been straying far from their home waters. Like Duncan’s horses in Macbeth, “longmas” – winged, lizard-skinned horses that ablute by flying through rainclouds – are rumoured to be eating each other. Christopher and Mal join forces with a salty old seadog called Nighthand, the marine scientist Irian Guinne and Ratwin, a green-furred, squirrel-like creature skilled in navigation, to find out what is ailing the glimourie before it winks out for good.

At one level, then, Impossible Creatures is an ecological fable whose meticulously detailed otherworld permits a further alternative reality, where kids assume global custodianship from the grown-ups who have made such a cock-up of it. (There is a possible hint of this in the title: adults are the “impossible creatures” as much as the mythic fauna they have brought to the brink of extinction.) “Children have been underestimated for hundreds of years”, says Anja, an elder, when Irian wonders if Christopher and Mal are too young to save the injured Nighthand. At another level it is a kind of dramatized bestiary, which, alongside the fantasy it enacts of adolescent empowerment, I suspect will be its main appeal: the creatures are there to be collected as much as to drive the plot. Rundell has reportedly spent many months researching her nereids and borometzes – for the uninitiated, the latter are a kind of zoophytic “vegetable lamb” believed in Greek and Jewish folklore to be permanently attached to green stalks – and, at least for the parent beadily overseeing her pre-teen’s bedtime reading, there is a philological pleasure in teasing out the mythopoetic origins of Rundell’s creations.

The Magic Hour by David Wolstencroft, the creator of the BBC spy drama Spooks, is another portal-quest fantasy starring a pre-teen from a broken home, although, bar the Scottish setting, the kinship with Rundell ends there. Ailsa Craig – named, of course, for the charismatically desolate island in the Firth of Clyde – is an eleven-year-old from Edinburgh whose poor timekeeping is partly the result of her parents’ separation. She is constantly shuttling back and forth between her mother’s new flat and the former family home – at least until the latter is destroyed in an apparent gas explosion. Searching through the rubble, she discovers, at the back of her father’s shed, a portal to a parallel Edinburgh that operates on a twenty-five-hour clock. Wolstencroft’s witty donnée is that all those irritating individuals – like Ailsa’s glamorous frenemy Credenza Dingwall – who appear to take life in their stride only do so thanks to the secret, supernumerary “magic hour” afforded to the elite to whittle down their to-do lists. Messing with time comes at a cost, however, as Ailsa discovers after Credenza persuades her to stay in the superficially idyllic alt-Edinburgh for longer than their allotted time slot. Wolstencroft scaffolds his fantasy with figures from Scottish folklore, including the tricksterish fairy people known as the “Shee”, and the malevolent “brollachan”, a shapeless spirit casting about for a body to usurp.

If there is a fault in Rundell, it’s that her mythologizing smells a little of the lamp. This is not a criticism you could level at Wolstencroft, whose irreverence pays the interest on his borrowings from myth. Quite apart from its brisk plot and the lucid, accessible approach it takes to the scientific implications of its big idea, the narrator’s constant, giddy buttonholing of the reader makes The Magic Hour an unexpectedly enjoyable exercise in narrative self-consciousness: metafiction for beginners.

Philip Womack’s Ghostlord, a sequel to his terrific (and rather Garner-esque) teen fantasy Wildlord (2021), is aimed at a slightly older audience, but will be well within the capabilities of strong (and unspookable) readers on the borders of tweendom and their teenage years. Its portal appears wherever Meg wishes it to. After moving from London with her (single) mother to an ancient and suspiciously cheap rented cottage in the country, Meg unearths a toy horse with an obsidian mirror implanted in its forehead, which awakens in her an ability to navigate the Crypta, a network of tunnels through space and time. At first she is guided by Jankin, the ghost of a young boy trapped in the tunnels for 500 years; he will turn out to be less benign than he seems. Ghostlord hits the sweet spot between imaginative abandon and control; the narrative device of the Crypta allows Womack to move with consummate agility between his fantastical realms, all ingeniously rendered, and the mundane circumstances of a lonely teenager struggling to come to terms with her father’s absence.

Island of Whispers by Frances Hardinge also deals with parental loss, although the narrative mode here is classic fable, as opposed to the hybrid of fantasy and realism adopted by Womack, Wolstencroft and, to a lesser extent, Rundell. It is the responsibility of the Ferryman to transport the recently deceased to the Island of the Broken Tower, where their souls can ascend to the afterlife. The Lord of Merlank, however, is so stricken by the death of his fourteen-year-old daughter that he refuses to let the Ferryman set sail, trusting instead to the powers of “dark practitioners” to bring her back to life. In the ensuing struggle the Ferryman is killed. His son, Milo, is forced, much against his natural inclination, to take on his duties, and the book becomes a chase that proceeds at the pace of a dream, as Milo tries to ensure the dead young girl’s passage to eternity before her father and his henchmen can stop them. No ordinary ship can sail from mortal seas into “the strange, uncanny waters” that lead to the tower; it takes a liminal “dusk-slider”, a “twilight voyager” like the Evening Mare, the vessel Milo has inherited from his father, to sail “the seam between worlds”; there is an oneiric, Coleridgean strangeness to the scene where Merlank’s men build a bridge of human bones to bypass the portal between life and death.

Island of Whispers is a melancholy, mist-shrouded triumph: with its flocks of hollow, headless, chime-harbouring seafowl and its exquisitely bittersweet denouement at the Broken Tower, Hardinge’s book, atmospherically illustrated by Emily Gravett, is less reliant on myth than generative of its own.

Three recent releases set during or just after the Second World War are variably free-spirited fictionalizations of true events. The standout among these is Robin Scott-Elliot’s Sweet Skies. Between June 1948 and September 1949 the Luftbrücke, or Berlin airlift, kept the residents of West Berlin supplied with food and fuel after the Soviets blockaded the city. Scott-Elliot’s novel takes its inspiration from Operation Little Vittles, a later stage of the airlift whereby chocolate and sweets were dropped from the transport aircraft that would become known as the “Raisin” or “Candy Bombers”. Otto Hartmann, a fourteen-year-old Berliner who yearns to become a pilot despite having lost an eye in a tank attack, gets involved in a complex exchange of black-market goods between an American airman and a ruthless Soviet spymaster. Scott-Elliot pulls off the difficult task of making a Cold War thriller suitable for younger readers without overly smoothing its edges; Sweet Skies is genuinely exciting.

In Until the Road Ends Phil Earle adapts the real-life story of Rip, a stray dog that rescued more than 100 victims of the Blitz, and applies it to the tragic circumstances of the Balham Underground disaster of October 1940, when a German fragmentation bomb caused the platform tunnel to collapse, with the loss of more than sixty lives. Accompanied by Mabel, the sarky house cat, and a homing pigeon called Bomber, Earle’s version of Rip, a genial mongrel called Beau, sets off across a war-shadowed, often treacherous and vividly realized rural England to find his beloved Peggy, whose parents are killed in the Balham disaster after she is evacuated to safety in Dorset.

Safiyyah’s War by Hiba Noor Khan commemorates the Resistance activities at the Grand Mosque of Paris during the occupation, when the imam and a rector known as Si Kaddour Benghabrit saved hundreds of Jewish lives by forging documents that identified them as Muslim. Eleven-year-old Safiyyah and her family stand for the dozens of ordinary Muslims who lived at the mosque and participated in Benghabrit’s secret efforts; when Safiyyah’s father, Baba, falls under Nazi suspicionshe takes on his responsibilities, delivering the forged paperwork and escorting persecuted Jewish families through the catacombs under the mosque. Khan’s depiction of the friendship between Safiyyah and Hana, a young Jewish girl traumatized by the disappearance of her parents, is especially touching; that her narration occasionally slips into sentiment and cliché (“The darkest part of every night is just before the sun rises”) only slightly hampers what is otherwise a heartfelt and tragically timely paean to religious tolerance.

It’s notable that all of the books under consideration feature dead, absent or otherwise compromised father figures. In Impossible Creatures Christopher’s father is negligent; Meg’s father in Ghostlord is gravely ill; Baba in Khan’s novel is rendered passive; and Hans, Otto’s father in Sweet Skies, is a former Nazi flying ace hollowed out by the humiliation of defeat. Children’s literature abhors the vacuum created by vanished parental authority: it is in the gap left by Baba, Hans and others that the daydream of precocious agency is allowed to flourish. Like the young protagonists of Island of Whispers and Until the Road Ends, Jack, the narrator of Ele Fountain’s new novel Wild, has lost his father, in this instance for unspecified reasons. And, like the surviving parents in Rundell’s and Womack’s books, Jack’s mother, Sofia, is absent in spirit; an environmental anthropologist, she has a touch of Mrs Jellyby about her, too caught up in the challenges faced by Indigenous tribes in Brazil to attend properly to her grieving son, who is skiving off school with a graffiti gang who dare him to shoplift a supply of spray paint.

Then Sofia springs a surprise on Jack: she is taking him to the rainforest on what turns out to be a dangerous mission related to her work. In contrast to the other books, the effectiveness of Wild relies on its urban realism, contemporary setting, and therefore, to a degree, plausibility; even recalibrated to a pre-teen tolerance for tall tales, our credulity is stretched by Sofia’s recklessness. That said, there is an impish irony in a mother showing she cares by exposing her son to a murderous Amazonian logging cartel. The allegiance to the wild Jack shares with Christopher in Impossible Creatures is tested by extremity: like Christopher, and Meg, and Milo and Otto and Safiyyah, he returns to painful normality a little more equipped to withstand it.

Nat Segnit’s most recent book is Retreat: The risks and rewards of stepping back from the world, 2021

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