Saturday, 19 July 2014
Friday, 18 July 2014
But The Dyerville Tales is something quite different and in its way very special. It fully deserves its place in the canon of notable children's literature.
It is essentially a story within a story. The framing narrative concerns a boy named Vincent who runs off from an orphanage to find his way across country and attend his grandfather's funeral. His big dream is that he is not really an orphan and will find his missing father there too. He is given a book, purportedly his grandfather's life story, which he reads on the way. The inner narrative, the content of the book, is a fairy tale adventure in which a boy, also called Vincent, pursues a quest to kill an evil witch and free those she has enchanted.
I have been trying to pinpoint just why this book feels so special. It belongs, in many ways, to a strong tradition of US children's fiction dealing sensitively with kids who don't have the easiest of lives, but who fight through with considerable feistiness. Superficially it is not hugely original. Stories of supposed orphans on quests for lost parents abound. The device of one narrative framed within another is not uncommon, nor is the notion of reworking fairy tales, or even of using them as metaphors for real life (for example in Anne Ursu's brilliant Breadcrumbs).
However, where The Deryville Tales scores so highly and makes such a remarkable impact is that it is quite wonderfully written. The first thing to strike (and to continue to delight throughout ) is that its use of language is rich, evocative and, at its best (which it often is) simply beautiful; prose of remarkable refinement and writerly skill. Make no mistake, this is literary language. Right from the start, when Vincent is described as, 'he of the fair skin and the sad eyes, the disheveled hair and the honest smile,' we know that we are in the world of book language, not the vernacular. But children sometimes need to be extended in the style and usage they meet. More than this though, this book is a story and is about story, and that is where its language takes and hold us. It is lyrical and evocative, creating pictures in the mind and washing the reading ear with waves and eddies of mellifluous sound.
Even more cleverly, this is never at the expense of narrative flow. This is no nineteenth century wallow in fancy words. In fact the pace of the storytelling is quick. In the inner narrative particularly (but in the framing one too) the story is essentially incident driven, fully reflecting the fairy tale genre. It romps from one crisis to the next. This strand does not retell one particular fairy tale nor, in fact, does it draw its characters and situations from this genre alone but from a whole range of story sources including myths and legends from various traditions. Thrown into the amalgam here are elements of Odysseus and the Cyclops, Duke Blubeard's castle and Baba Yaga's hut on chicken legs, amongst many others. In fact adult readers may particularly enjoy spotting sources, even if some of these bypass its younger audience. The excitement piles, page by page, and the fact that it is not a completely known story, despite its very familiar characters and motifs, gives it a driving momentum. This is reflected too in the framing story and, of course, the fact that the narrative strands alternate adds further page-turning impetus. Even more than this, however, what makes both narratives so engaging is the sensitivity, and indeed humanity, with which the protagonists and their responses to each situation are drawn. Despite the excitement and speed of the action we are led to feel every moment with the two Vincents. There is reflection too, quietness and pathos. And if, as for example in the scene between the grandson Vincent and the artist on the train, the writing sometimes comes close to sentimentality, it always keeps just the right side of the line and ends up as genuinely affecting instead.
Perhaps the most interesting question is just how much this book is a fantasy at all - but then that is, I think, its point. For, although the inner narrative of grandfather Vincent is indubitably fantasy in itself, it is for almost all of the book presented as nothing more than a story. Unlike, say, Inkheart, the characters do not step out of the tale and inpinge on the real world, nor does grandson Vincent actually leave his own world and enter the fantasy one. Yet it is made clear that his imaginative absorption in his grandfather's tale is such that he does vicariously enter its world. This is reinforced by both grandfather and grandson sharing the same name. Sometimes we lose track, as does he, of which Vincent's experiences we are sharing. There are times, too, when the two worlds begin to draw together. The criminal family in the real world feel very like fairy tale characters; grandfather Vincent's relationship with Sarah feels very real. Only at the very end of the book do the two narrative strands, and with them reality and story, actually merge. (Not wishing to be involved in spoilers, I will not say how.)
But then the whole book is a story; its language has reminded us of that from the start. It is a dream, Vincent's dream, every child's dream, the dream of all of us: to be a hero battling through any difficulties to make everything all right for those we love, for the whole world, for ourselves. In real life it generally doesn't work out quite this way. In life it is not real. Here it is not real. It is a story. It does not need to be true, because it is.
If I still had a class of nine, ten or eleven year-olds I would be desperate to read this aloud to them. It would enthrall and delight them - and teach them so much about language and about story too, without me saying a word.
I must add this author's slightly earlier Juniper Berry (2011), which I have so far missed, to my reading pile straight away.
Thursday, 10 July 2014