‘Betty Widdershins first learned of the family curse on the night of her birthday. It was her thirteenth, a number considered unlucky by some, but Betty was too practical to believe in all that.’ (p 5)
Some new children’s books come out and immediately receive accolades galore. When I can, I prefer to review here books that are a little more ‘off the beaten track’, to try to draw attention to wonderful books that could get overlooked by a UK readership. However every now and then a smash hit of a book comes along that I too find so exciting that I cannot resist adding my voice to the many already singing its praises.
Michelle Harrison has been writing engaging children’s fantasies for the best part of ten years now. However she has continued to develop her considerable skills and, even from a starting point of ‘very good’, her writing gets better and better.
The other one first
Just before I get to her latest though, let me briefly go back one. The Other Alice, her immediately previous book to this, is exceptionally interesting. As well as being a gripping and distinctly disquieting mystery, it explores challenging ideas about the nature of writing and reading fiction, asking exactly what it means for characters to be experienced as ‘real’.
Eleven year old Midge’s older sister, Alice, is an inveterate writer of stories. When she disappears, and several of the characters from an unfinished tale in her notebooks start to turn up in ‘real life’, he is left trying to unravel the significance of it all. These characters of Alice’s include a talking cat and a near double of Alice herself as well as the very sinister ‘hangman’ and a serial killer called Dorothy Grimes. To add to the mix, the narrative takes place in a village with the weird tradition of an annual ‘Summoning’ festival and also involves, a curse. (Curses are one of the most consistently occurring elements in Michelle Harrison’s stories.) This all gives the book a tone that is somewhat closer to ‘Unrest’, her novel more specifically for older readers, than to her earlier children’s books. Perhaps because it is rather different in feel from her justly popular ‘13’ series, it does not seem to have attracted quite the same attention. However it is a great, if somewhat chilling, read for all who love to inhabit books (or to let books inhabit them), and perhaps especially interesting for any who invent their own stories. It is a comparatively complex novel that will plays around with its readers disturbingly, but offers much to enjoy as well as a great deal to reflect upon. It is very well worth seeking out - for children brave enough.
‘The problem with monsters is that those of our own making are the most terrifying of all. Yet, if we create them, we also have the power to overcome them.’ (p 339)
More than a pinch of magic
Her latest book, A Pinch of Magic, is attracting cartloads of admiring attention, and deservedly so. It not only returns closer to the feel of her earlier successes, without being simply ‘more of the same’, but is an absolute cracker of a story in its own right. I am generally a fairly slow reader, but the lightning pace at which I raced through this one is testament to the fact that it is one of the most compelling narratives I have encountered in quite a while. Michelle Harrison has now developed into a consummate storyteller and this is just the sort of book to curl up with on a wet Saturday afternoon, or any other day for that matter. It is children’s entertainment reading at its very best.
The title of the novel is, in one sense, very apt; rather than a pure magic fantasy, this is really a powerful adventure/mystery story with a little magic thrown in. The author pulls together various elements from fantasy and fairy tale tradition, a bag that transports between places, a mirror that sees absent people, a magical nesting dolls that enable invisibility. Together these constitute the ‘pinch of magic’ of the title. Into this mix are thrown imprisonment in a tall tower, something of the historical persecution of supposed witches, and, of course, the author being Michelle Harrison, a most significant curse. It is never altogether clear where the story’s magic actually comes from, certain people just have it, and overall the story is perhaps not completely logical. But, in context, that matters not one jot, for its narrative is completely convincing and utterly compelling.
Queen of curses
The setting on a small homeland island called Crowstone, surrounded by the often mist-shrouded ‘Crowstone Marshes’, is captivatingly original. Together with its trio of grim surrounding islets, Torment, Lament and Repent, it is also hauntingly atmospheric. Protagonist, plucky, determined Betty Widdershins, is joined by her older and younger sisters in a desperate quest to break their devastating family curse. There is a strong boy presence too, in the person of a young prisoner they help to escape. Together they make a varied and likeable crew and are backed by a cast of fascinating and richly drawn characters, adding considerable further engagement to the story. Yet it is the narrative structure itself that the author handles so brilliantly. As the book develops, we follow two interwoven narrative lines: the adventures of the sisters in their present and, as they themselves gradually learn it, the historic tale that lead to the instigation of their curse. That the result is a compulsive page turner is almost an understatement. At every juncture the plight of our heroines just gets more and more desperate, so that we, the readers become more and more desperate to know what happens next. It is a breathtaking and brilliant read and, whilst it has no pretentions to any great depth or ‘relevance’, it is just the sort of book we need on children’s shelves to turn them into lifelong readers.
The many young fans of Michelle Harrison who have already read her Thirteen Treasures series will surely be thrilled by this new novel. Those who come to A Pinch of a Magic new to its talented author will, I’m sure, want to seek out her earlier books. They are, thankfully, all still all in print. And the great news is that A Pinch of Magic is just the start a new series; there is more about the Widdershins sisters yet to come. Michelle Harrison is a treasure of a writer with far more than a pinch of magic.