So many children’s books, especially for this age group, talk about a love for reading. They might feature a character whose nose is permanently in a book, a library that bestows secrets, a saviour from bullying whose emotional empathy has been garnered from reading. Preaching to the converted perhaps – a bullet-proof way to draw in the reader, a person who, by the very fact that they are reading the book, will immediately feel resonance with the mention of bookishness within the story.
This book is different though. This is clever. Michelle Harrison doesn’t just weave a love for reading into her book. This novel is very much all about the writing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you read the book carefully, embedded within it is a story-writing manual.
Midge has an older sister Alice. One who writes stories. But one day Alice goes missing, and when Midge runs into a lookalike who is adamant she isn’t Alice, and then he runs into a talking cat, Midge realises that the characters in Alice’s most recent story have come to life. Midge needs to figure out why Alice is missing, why the characters are alive, and how to end the story Alice has left unfinished, without them all succumbing to the wickedness of the intensely dark and disturbed villain of the piece.
In essence this is a good old-fashioned classic adventure story. Midge must find his missing sister, and together with his new accomplices Gypsy and Piper, must solve riddles to find Alice, as well as avoiding the villain who wishes to get to Alice first. The reader can also have a stab at solving the riddles, which are italicised in the text. Like Dorothy in Oz, who navigates through a landscape where ‘characters’ such as the Tin Man come to life, or Pinocchio, the toy who comes to life, this is a familiar landscape. And yet Harrison lifts it to greater heights – this is a story for older readers with darkness and depth.
And hidden (in plain sight) in the story are markers that point to a more complex novel. The story Alice has been writing is planted in pieces within the general narrative, so that the backstory of the characters is highlighted, and also the vague intent that Alice had for them, illuminating everything for the reader, but not necessarily for the characters. The real author, Michelle Harrison, also leads the reader on a dance through fairy stories and allusions to other tales, not only in calling her character Alice, with Midge seeing her through a looking glass, but in the chapter headings – Gingerbread House, Trail of Breadcrumbs, Once Upon a Time, and in the names of her characters – Piper plays hypnotising music on his flute just like The Pied Piper. Harrison also drops in allusions within the text itself:
“Terror stuck in my throat like a poisoned apple.”
There are numerous extra storytelling tropes thrown into the mix – from an old lady sorcerer who captures a voice (The Little Mermaid) to a fire, mistaken identities, an errant father, a mother who conveniently takes herself away for the duration, and of course, as I mentioned, loving placements of libraries and bookshops.
However, this being Michelle Harrison, there is also a spooky, shivery feel to the book. From the opening scene at the start, Alice’s book within a book, to the name of the town in which Midge lives, Fiddler’s Hollow, to curses, as well as the annual ritual of the Summoning at Fiddler’s Hollow (with its tradition of making a doll likeness of someone and then burning them in a huge pyre), which sounds like something out of Salem. Watchers from shadows, and the creepiest villain with charred hands, gave this reader a haunting feeling, and will certainly do so for youngsters too.
But as aforementioned, it’s the guide to storytelling that’s well and truly threaded throughout the story. Chapter headings such as Writers’ Block are just one example. Midge often relates things his older sister has told him to the fictional characters whom he befriends:
“Alice says stories never start at the beginning. They start when something is about to happen.”
Midge also thinks he knows more about the characters because he can read their history in Alice’s notes, but in actuality, characters only come alive in any book when they are realistic. Characters have to have aims, goals, wants because that’s what real people have. We are all protagonists of our own stories, weaving our own webs of lies and fabrications, being true only to ourselves, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes our stories run away from us, in the same way that authors report their characters can run away from their control.
“Alice often says her characters take over when she’s writing. Doing their own thing. Like the story is writing itself and the characters take control.” Midge explains. This points to the crux of the story within the story here – how much influence is Alice going to have over her characters, or whether the characters are going to steer the story forwards without her. It’s clever and complex, and pushes the reader to think.
What’s real in our own lives, which stories have we fabricated? We’re all characters of our own imagining. Alice projects herself onto her main character Gypsy – the best parts of herself, a braver self with the ability to wear the clothes she wants to wear, to befriend a boy with striking similarity to a boy Alice fancies in real life (well, within Michelle Harrison’s story!).
“Her characters had always been real to her, but they were properly real now, and here. They spoke, they ate, they slept. If I cut them, they’d bleed.”
In the epilogue, Harrison explains how everything is a story – just told from a different point of view. She calls the epilogue ‘Ever After’.
Stepping back from the complexity of the story, there are messages about loyalty – about being true to yourself, and searching for a cohesion in life – be it your family network, or just the end of a story.
This is a masterful telling, which twists and turns and is beautiful in its scope. There’s also a talking cat who likes tea. The only caveat is the shapelessness of the young protagonist – our narrator Midge. He felt ill-defined to me, vague almost, and at times I forgot his gender (it’s told in the first person) – but maybe that too was a masterful stroke. Perhaps our own young selves are shaped by events that are happening to us, perhaps he’s not meant to be fully formed, but a vessel through which the story is told.
Either way, I felt that Michelle Harrison wrote a book in which “there was no option to stop reading, or to put the story down.” A cracking adventure story with added depth.
Please note that this review was written after reading a proof copy of the book. The publisher recommends this as a 9+ years read. Personally I would raise that to 11+. You can buy it here.