Tag Archive for Constable Cathryn

The Pearl in the Ice by Cathryn Constable

pearl in the iceSet in 1912 with an impending global conflict, twelve-year-old Marina is the daughter of a Naval Commander and a long-absent mother, so is often left on her own. The book opens with Marina up a plane tree in a leafy London suburb contemplating imminent boarding school. Yet, bound within Marina’s daydreaming and watery metaphors, is the inexorable pull of the sea, and before long Marina is swapping one train for another and heading to Portsmouth to stow away on her father’s ship.

But as with so many stories, all is not what it seems. In any way. This 1912 is a slightly alternate reality, with the enemy of the British the fictional Mordavians, and a battle over codes, transmitters and missing ships being waged near the fictional town of Svengejar near the very real Sea of Murmansk. By cleverly mixing reality with fiction, Constable creates a tangible landscape for her story, and makes sure that mentions of sea beasts and mermaids don’t feel as far removed as they should.

Much of the novel takes place aboard The Sea Witch, where Marina’s father is the captain. Discovered by the crew, Marina quickly earns her place on board, looking after the dogs who will eventually pull the sleds when the ship docks in the Arctic Circle. As well as painting an intriguing picture of life on board a ship, complete with sailors’ superstitions, roles and responsibilities, ropes and rigging, there’s also the tension of imminent war, codes and code-breaking, and the mysteriousness of her father’s real role in the conflict.

By basing her book half in reality and half not, Constable sets up some wonderful tension in her characters; the reader having to guess who is speaking the truth, and who not. Near the beginning, Marina makes fast friends on the train with a Miss Smith, whom she admires for her feminist outlook, her insistence that women are just as good as men. This modern sensibility takes a battering on the ship, where Marina is referred to as ‘Boy, 2nd class,’ as girls do not feature as seamen. But her respect and admiration for Miss Smith doggedly follow her through the story, and by the end her feminist beliefs are restored, although she learns that even the bravest feminist can be on the wrong side.

The main tension in the book though, is not Marina’s seafaring adventure, or the end quest to save her father, but more her understanding of where fantasy meets reality, and the true understanding of why her mother disappeared. This is most clearly borne out in the very frightening and gripping dream/memory sequence at the end of chapter three, as Marina’s earliest memory seems to be that of being nearly drowned in the bath. From this sprout ongoing hints as to who Marina’s mother really is. By the end, the book’s plot – filled with double lives, spies, and codes – bends to encompass a fantasy realm too.

For readers of this age group, there is solace to be found in reading of a girl’s search for greater independence, not just in knowing who she is and where she comes from, but mainly in where she is going as she makes the leap from childhood to adulthood, understanding the premise that not all adults are to be believed and that challenging them can reap its own rewards.

This is a far from watery novel – in fact like the dark shape that follows Marina’s quest across the seas – it has real bite. The characters are well-formed – Miss Smith rather glamorously reminiscent of shades of Mrs Coulter – and the messages behind the story strong and well thought-out. But it is the imagery of the sea and what lies beneath that leaves lingering visions in the mind: the power of a storm, the surging dance of the waves, and the ever-changing colours of the water above the darkness below.

For 9+ years.

With thanks to Nina Douglas and Chicken House publishers for my review copy. Catch up with the rest of the blog tour below. And you can buy your own copy here.

The White Tower by Cathryn Constable

I once had a giggle with a fellow children’s books reviewer about the number of books we reviewed in which the main character had to move house or school in order to start their adventure. But sometimes an old trope works a treat in a new book.

Livy, a young girl struggling with her grief that her best friend has died, is moved to a new private school, and her family to a house within the grounds, when her father lands a job in the school’s library. Her new attic bedroom nestles among the spires and domes of the school, and Livy is strangely drawn to the statues on the rooftops. When the headmistress shows more than a passing interest in her and her little brother Tom, Livy must work out what her connection is to the school, and how it will help her to overcome her grief.

With echoes of the lost boys of Peter Pan, and the contemporary adventures within Rooftoppers, this is a book that lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned. The story itself is old-fashioned – not only the setting of an old private school, but the unfurling of a mystery about ancient science experiments, a wish to fly, and a dream-like reality where ghosts stalk rooftops and nothing is as it seems.

The reader pelts through the story, as keen to solve the mystery as Livy herself, and as unsure of the motives of the old librarian and the headteacher as Livy. But as things begin to fall into place, the reader remains a little unsure as to whether all the links completely tie up.

A trance-like atmosphere pervades the book: stained glass shatters, and spires and statues create connotations with the dreamy spires of Oxford. This imagery haunts at the end, but it almost seems as if the book could have been drawn out into a trilogy – there was scope for the links between the dropped clues and the final dénouement to be extrapolated further. The wonderful setting of the school library and her father’s work within could have been stretched out too.

There is a wonderful juxtaposition between the everyday normality of a school; Livy has modern problems with friendships and distracted parents, and there is much made of friendship groups, fitting in, and flirtations with the opposite sex. And then the dreamy, almost fantasy landscape of Livy’s night-time wanderings, as she seeks to find out the mystery behind an ancient science that makes claims of human flight, and the link between gravity and being grounded – science and pure magic.

Emotions are pulled too – Livy’s little brother is used as a pawn in the villain’s game, and there are frequent references to the science that couldn’t help Livy’s best friend recover from leukemia – so Livy is grieving too.

This is a good book, and it certainly deserves to be read. I’m not sure if it was so good that I wanted more, or just did not satiate satisfactorily, which left me wanting more.

Make your own mind up here.