Piers Torday's Last Wild trilogy is a fine work of children's literature, carrying important messages. But this latest work of his is the finer by far. I need to say this clearly at the outset. There May Be a Castle is not only a very fine book but a hugely important one. It deserves to become, indeed needs to become, a contemporary children's classic.
Now please remember that I have said this and bear with me through my next comments.
As an adult reader I found there was a lot I needed to get past in this book. First and foremost, the basic concept is far from original. A lead character has a serious accident (car crash) and enters a strange 'other world', leaving the reader not really knowing whether this is a classic 'portal' fantasy, whether the protagonist is unconscious and 'dreaming', or whether she or he is actually dead and in some form of afterlife. With variations, this idea has already been well used, both in fiction and in film. A further concern was that the metaphor which pervades this book is rather heavy handed, over-obvious and even somewhat patronisingly explained at points. Finally I could not escape the feeling that this tale verges on sentimentality. Whether it actually tips over into the mawkish is debatable, but at best it comes close.
However, I did completely forgive these things. And I did so for two overriding reasons.
Firstly, of course, this is not a book for adults. It is not even a nominal children's book with adult pretentious.* It is a genuine children's book, and, as such, it is pitched to its intended readership with consummate skill. The core concept is reworked afresh for the 9-12 age group, in a quite riveting way. There will be nothing unoriginal about it for them. Moreover, Piers Torday has succeeded brilliantly in inhabiting the thoughts and feelings of a young contemporary boy. The rich picture conjured of protagonist, Mouse, and of his family life is spot on. It is realistic and funny, sweet and annoying. And it is one with which so many children of this age will be able to identify - even if their superficial lives are quite different. Mouse is one of the great creations of recent children's literature, and his long-loved baby toys, his interests, his likes and dislikes, his family relationships, his hopes and fears all spring vividly from these pages.
Secondly, I could forgive this book anything, because it is quite beautifully written. This applies not only to the writer's character and world building skills, but also to his ability to capture incident with amazing immediacy. His description, for example, of the car crash are rivetingly, shockingly vivid. In contrast his inventions of dialogue between, say, Mouse and Nonky, the horse that was his favourite toy in real life but in the 'fantasy' world is amazingly altered, is a joyful delight. This writer's exceptional craftsmanship also applies to his structuring of the story. Mouse's quest for the castle that 'might be' is interleaved with scenes from the aftermath of the actual accident. This keeps the reader's not only involved in the fantasy but simultaneously desperate to know what is really happening to the family, and of course to Mouse himself. It is these unanswered questions which are most powerful of all in keeping the pages turning. And when a resolution does appear to be reached, it is the twist of the final passage before the 'Epilogue' which is the book's true, and devastating, heart.
Rather than being heavy-handed this novel introduces its relatively young readers to extended metaphors in a quite brilliantly appropriate way, explaining just enough to keep them clear, yet still leaving room for poetic imagination and independent response. This in itself is a wonderful thing. Even if they come away from this story only subconsciously aware that metaphor can be more than just a descriptive device in a single sentence, their appreciation of the potential of fiction will be hugely increased.
And all of this is underpinned by wonderful use of language itself. Sentence after sentence, passage after passage, is an object lesson in the construction of prose which is simple but effective, elegant but unpretentious. It is so much what young readers deserve, but do not always get.
Even more importantly perhaps, there is too little written for this age group which has this book's degree of underlying seriousness and import. There are many wonderful examples for older children and young adults, and even, in their way, picture books for younger children, but sometimes something of a gulf in between. However, here is a book for 9-12s which for once does not pander primarily to humorous entertainment. It is, thankfully, not full of farting aunties or warty grandmas. It is quality literature made completely accessible to middle-years children. It is deeply challenging without ever being heavy or intimidating. It will make its readers reflect whilst still engaging them hugely, and it will greatly move them. Few books for this age group deal so well with some of life's biggest issues.
As soon as you take the intended readership into account, together with the masterly use of language, what could have been sentiment becomes emotional truth of the most affecting kind. This book exudes great humanity, an overriding commitment to love for family, in all its potential forms, and a profound belief in the power and potency of imagination. It is life-affirming. All of these are quite wonderful things to lay out for the young. In exploring what can so easily be lost, it commits to what must not be lost at any price.
This will not be an easy read for many children, but it will be an enriching as well as an involving one. It is a book for committed and sensitive readers. But it will also help to grow more committed and sensitive readers - and perhaps more committed and sensitive people too. Which is why I opened this review in the way I did.
The subtle but potent design and illustration have as much class as the story. A volume to treasure.
*It will, I'm sure, be enjoyed and valued for what it is by countless adults, but that is something different.