Katherine Rundell publishes her children’s books with an effortless breathlessness; they are dizzying in their sumptuous prose and expert storytelling, put children in the most challenging environments – from the rooftops of Paris in Rooftoppers to the snowy tundra of Russia in The Wolf Wilder, not to mention the African savannah and then harsh boarding school of The Girl Savage, and yet the books also manage to speak to the reader with a simple sublime truth. Rundell’s latest, The Explorer, takes the child protagonists to an even greater extreme, crash-landing them in the Amazon jungle.
Fred, Con, Lila and Max are alone with no food and no shelter. They must learn to navigate the unknown territory in which they find themselves, as well as find a route back to civilisation. At first, they look only for food and water, but then by accident, stumble across a map marked with an X – a sign that they are not alone, as they had envisaged. With growing courage, and a desire to survive, the children handcraft a raft which should take them to the X. But X marks the spot of someone else’s home, and they are not entirely welcome.
Rundell’s ability to handle the very different characteristics of the four children is apparent from the beginning, each personality drawing conflict with the others, and yet each being endearing and frustrating in their own way. The interaction between them, in very difficult circumstances, is as dramatic as any theatre production – the children forge through the jungle, all the while perpetuating the conflict between them, and quite often the struggle within themselves. Fred is loveable as a clear leader, but one obsessed with his perception of his father – as a parent who only sees his son’s shortcomings. Con struggles terrifically with the gendered role she has been assigned at home. Lila, with her younger brother Max, is perhaps the most sympathetic and nurturing of the four – she even adopts a sloth – but she too is nuanced – there are no cardboard cutout characters here.
The book immerses the reader in the Amazon. Rundell brings alive the sights and smells of the jungle, the pervasive problem of what to eat, and not only the wildlife, but the children’s relationship with it. Her sense of place is extraordinary, and it is no great surprise to learn that it is taken from first-hand experience. And the added element of Hannah Horn’s illustrations imbue the book with a sense of the wonder and beauty of the Amazon.
But tied up beneath the surface story of children surviving in this jungle environment are intricate questions of belonging, and the spaces we carve out for ourselves in society and culture, the expectations upon us, and also the balance of exploration and exploitation of other cultures.
The reader excuses the ease with which the children stumble upon the map and ‘the explorer’, because the enthusiasm and exuberance with which Rundell brings each new element of the story to light is utterly compelling. The power of flight, the joyfulness of discovery and escape, and the flourish with which Rundell furnishes her novels with truisms and wisdom:
“You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer…Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention…If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.”
There’s an extra swiftness to this latest Rundell story, which in part lends it to an even younger readership than that of Rooftoppers and The Wolf Wilder, and although the prose is equally beautiful, the descriptions too are faster. With four child characters there is more dialogue, more action than before.
One can’t help feel that Rundell very much takes her own advice. Her stories bear out that she pays enormous attention to what’s going on around her, as well as plucking the richest bits for her prose. The Explorer bursts with ferocious energy, and each character carries an undercurrent of fierce passion. It’s a book that can’t help but inspire children with their own passion for life. You can buy it here.