If I had read this remarkable YA novel just a couple of weeks earlier I would have included it in my top books of 2015. (See post from earlier in Dec.)
One of the things I have tried to demonstrate throughout this blog is that the best writing for children and young people is very fine writing indeed. These books often shown staggering authorial imagination and originality. They can, and often do, treat with matters of both deep personal significance and profound universal resonance, touching very closely on what it means to be a human being. They demonstrate how effectively our language can, in the right hands, be used to explore and communicate all this. They can, in short, constitute great literature. Great, that is, not after making some patronising allowance for the fact that they are children's books ('As good as can be expected considering . . .' ) No. Great in any terms. Great literature, period. They are books which deserve recognition as such, even if they all too rarely get it.
Here is another such fine piece of writing.
Beastkeeper belongs to a well established and very special tradition in children's and young adult fantasy that might be termed 'invasive fairytale.'. This is one where contemporary kids, usually ones experiencing issues, find their lives blending with or melding into situations from traditional tales. Theirs is generally not the situation of passing through some Narnia wardrobe portal into a fantasy world and later returning. Rather it is about them 'magically' living through, even becoming their own metaphor. In this Beastkeeper is the noble progeny of the likes of The Owl Service. This Alan Garner masterpiece is still one of the most wonderful examples of the sub genre, although a far from easy read; a perfect example of young adult fiction as truly great literature. In more recent terms, Beastkeeper is a cousin of Anne Ursu's devastating Breadcrumbs, and perhaps an older sibling of Karen Foxlee's memorable Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy. It would be tempting to refer to such books as a kind of magical realism, except that they have very little to do with Latin American writing for adults and everything to do with a children's literature tradition in its own right.
However Beastkeeper is in no way an unoriginal book. It is not even heavily derivative of the Beauty and the Beast story to which it very loosely relates. When fourteen year old Sarah finds herself having to cope with the breakup of her parents, followed closely by the breakdown of her father, she finds herself dumped in a world that is more fairytale than reality. However her voice is and remains highly credible as that of a contemporary teenager; it draws us quickly and immersively into her story. And that story is one where very little develops as expected. This author breaks the mould of the traditional tale more often than she borrows from it, and sets up multiple twists and shocks. There are times even when the narrative is deeply disturbing, but still it holds us and will not let go. Characters are as complex and ambivalent as the plot line itself and even the boy Alan, who appears initially as a comparatively straightforward 'love interest', soon shows his strange and magical character and ends up as the focus of considerable tension. Increasingly Sarah's, and the reader's, involvement in the fantasy world becomes more intense. Her attempt to return to her earlier reality is abortive, and the enigmatic ending is, strangely, disturbing at the same time as it is comforting.
The real pinnacle of fiction is achieved when great story becomes fine literature, without ceasing to be great story. This applies in no small measure to Beastkeeper. The author is not only a fine storyteller but a master of language, and she melds both skills here to stunning effect. Whereas Alan Garner's prose was terse, almost bleak, in The Owl Service, Cat Hellisen's great linguistic talent is the metaphor and her strong and often startling images give her prose an almost poetic edge without ever losing touch with the excitement of the narrative flow. At its best, her language thrills with an invigorating shower of word painting which enhances perfectly her amalgam of contemporary and magical reality.
'There was a long silence, drawn out and stretched like a strand of bubblegum. Sarah tiptoed along the landing toward her parents’ room and wondered what flavor silence was, and if it grew hard and brittle if you threw it away, or if people sometimes stepped on wads of discarded silence and it stuck to the soles of their shoes and made their footfalls softer.
She stepped on the silences, and padded fox-quiet.'
This is literature. Fine literature.
Whilst story is vitally important, it can be accessed through a variety of media. Literature, in contrast, is necessarily a written form. It is the art of using written language to communicate depths and subtleties of experience, in this case through story. It is therefore more than simple story. It is story double plus.
There is an important message here, I think, for all concerned with helping young people become readers, for parents, carers, teachers, librarians, et al.
To engender enjoyment of story is a paramount aim, but on top of this we also need to help young people find their way through to quality literature. Some will, of course, discover it for themselves, but many will need our help. This means sharing our own enthusiasms for children's literature which goes beyond the simple enjoyment of story, beyond the highly popular comedies, adventures and romances which often top the best seller charts. Sometimes it means helping them into 'the classics', but there are also many contemporary children's and YA novels that more than qualify as literature. They do not require their readers to abandon the excitement and entertainment of story; like Beastkeeper, they just add more layers to it. We owe it to our children to seek out such books and share them. Literature has so much to offer our young people, and the world. It is a big part of what makes us human - and perhaps humane.