'Sometimes there are truths and comforts and ways in stories that are not so apparent outside stories. Sometimes stories are answers, or make answers possible. Sometimes they are the mothers of answers.' (p 94)
Some achieve greatness
It is always good to welcome a new authorial voice to children's fantasy fiction - especially when it is as exciting a one as Andrew Zurcher's.
Today's young readers are fortunate. There is a truly outstanding range of quality fiction available to them from wonderful contemporary writers. The choice is even more extensive if we include the best of titles written in the later half of the twentieth century, many of which remain fully accessible as well as fairly easily available. This amounts to a treasure trove of high quality reading material waiting for those who are prepared to look beyond the piles of current best sellers in the high street stores - or those who are favoured with knowledgable adults to guide them*.
However, just a handful of times in each generation, we are gifted children's books that are truly great. In such a category I would certainly include: Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea: Alan Garner's The Owl Service; Philip Pullman's Northern Lights; Richard Adams' Watership Down; Lois Lowry's The Giver; Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising. Other people's lists might vary slightly, but I think there would be a broad consensus as to the outstanding quality of most of these titles.
It is perfectly possible that, in time, Twelve Nights will be seen as belonging in this group too.
Of course, any such a statement needs to be cautious, at such an early stage after its first publication. This is a book that I feel I will need to read several more times, over a period, before I really start to appreciate everything it has to offer. More importantly, it will need deep appreciation from a wide spectrum of readers over many years to fully achieve such status. However, Twelve Nights certainly possess many of the defining qualities of my listed books, and combines those qualities into a whole of stunning originality and richness.
It came o’er my ear like the sweet south
Fictional debut this may be, but from its opening pages, it becomes evident that Andrew Zurcher is no novice writer. The first thing to strike me was the elegance of his prose, the substantial yet unobtrusive skill of its crafting and its mellifluous fall on the reading ear. This is emphatically not the easy-read, staccato rendering of many young children's writers, nor a trendy playing around with narrative tense to achieve immediacy or impact. This is English prose at its richest and finest and provides a wonderful opportunity for young readers to become immersed in the splendours of our language.
'Behind them lay the soft glow and hum of the small city, but before them a whole scape of darkness, furred by a little mist off the water, lay thick but scattering, like the cloak a magician might wave over a trick, just before revealing its marvel.
'Look at that,' said Phantastes, 'Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?'' (p 232)
AndrewZurcher's writing is equally beautiful. Nor is he afraid to linger, without ever wallowing. He writes long, atmospheric descriptions, be they of places, characters, events or feelings. They serve truly to transport you, the reader, into the world of his story; they give you time to live there, to come to know it, to experience it intimately and vividly. He is a master in painting both internal and external landscape and of melding each with the other in full service of his mesmerising tale.
What country, friends, is this?
To this, he adds the most fertile fantasy imagination that I have encountered in a very long while. True, at its most basic level, this is a story about a girl who goes off into a 'fantasy' world in order to try to find and rescue her missing father, probably one of the most frequently encountered scenarios in all of children's fantasy fiction. However beyond this simple core, Twelve Nights, exudes originality from every page
Once lifted, by balloon no less, away from the reality of contemporary Cambridge, the world to which protagonist Kate, and her sister, Ell, travel centres on Bithynia, a place suspended somewhere between geography and dreams. However their travels also roam through more recognisable locations, although again ones with romantic and mythic associations: Alexandria, Rome, Pylos, Paris. Alongside strong human characters, the author's storyscape is co-habited by wraiths and phantasms. They are the embodiments of folklore, creatures of faerie, in but not of our world - or is that the other way around? Indeed, one of the many fascinating aspects of this novel is the ambiguity of its relationship to our own reality.
Early in her balloon journey from Cambridge, Kay has a conversation with one of the wraiths flying her away.
'Where are we going?' she said after a while. 'Are we going to another world?' . . .
'So far as I know,' Will said, the suspicion of a grin turning up the corners of his mouth, 'this is the only world there is.' (p 49,50)
There may well be no reason to doubt Will here. But then this is a book to read with a one eye metaphorically closed, to look at askance. Seeing this strange world less clearly, we may just see it more fully. We should not try to own it, but to let it own us . Like a great book, it then gives us back our own selves. What we thought fantastic becomes our world after all. This is a world of imagination only insofar as image and metaphor are the stuff of fantasy, the stock-in-trade of poets and storytellers. It is our story.
So full of shapes is fancy
And the very essence of Twelve Nights is story. It is a narrative that is profoundly and richly about story itself. It is about the art and craft of story making and draws deeply on the well of its long traditions. It is also about the reason for stories and the value of their telling. The titular twelve nights are the twelve nights of Christmas, but this is not a Christmas story, in the Christian sense, or even the modern secular one. The twelve are the twelve nights of storytelling, reaching back into tales, poems and songs from across centuries and seemingly disparate cultures. Here, in reference and retellings, are Scheherazade and Orpheus, Isis and Osiris, Odysseus - and, above and through all, the elusive, enigmatic 'Bride', who is their Muse, their 'White Goddess'. She is the bard's inspiration. She is the braid.
Braid? Yes. For the iterative image which dominates and defines this book is that of the loom, the weaving of the fabric of story itself.
Yet this story also works wonderfully as story in its own right. It is by turns, exciting , terrifying , amusing, disturbing. It is consistently engrossing. It is a layered onion of a narrative, so that each revelation only uncovers more intriguing questions and keeps the reader desperate to know ever more. In Bithynia, the plotting and imagining components of story-making have been harmfully detached. In fact the whole body of story has suffered 'Sparagmos', been wrenched into separate pieces and dispersed, like the sacrifice at a Bacchanalian orgy, like the Greek Phaethon, like the Egyptian Osiris. The desperate quest for reintegration which is the narrative's core makes for compulsive reading. Moreover, Andrew Zurcher cannily saves some of his greatest surprises for the book's climax, which is every bit as amazing as it is revelatory.
All of this is underpinned with characters of real depth and relationships of touching sensitivity. Particularly poignant are Kay's complex feelings for her somewhat estranged yet still beloved father. Similarly, her sense of responsibility for her sister. However, possibly most deeply affecting of all is the relationship between the two wraiths, Will and Flip. Their special bond, able to transcend even the rending events of the narrative, is subtly explored but profoundly felt and is one of the most special of all Andrew Zurcher's magical conjurings.
I have unclasp'd to thee the book
With its rich language and extended description, its long apparent diversions into older stories, its complex plotting and its extended metaphors, this is not a quick, easy book to read. But, then, which of the great books I listed earlier are? It is, therefore, probably not the right book to give to entice a reluctant reader. It needs an experienced young book-lover of intelligence and sophistication. But there is nothing wrong in that. Children's literature must provide for all. And, for the right readers, it will return immeasurable rewards. For all it is written with great scholarship, it is actually still a book that can and should be read by children, as well as adults. It needs to be read as a child - experienced as much as understood, lived in and through rather than dissected. As the author himself points out:
'An image cannot be both known and understood, both seen and grasped. . . In the act of imagination we perceive, and perhaps admire, but to interpret, we must also destroy the image.' (p 235)
Children may well be better than any of us at responding to archetypal resonances without feeling the need constantly to analyse and 'understand' them.
Physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote of his science:
'The incompleteness and the uncertainty of our knowledge, our precariousness, suspended over the abyss of the immensity of what we don’t know, does not render life meaningless: it makes it interesting and precious.'**
Andrew Zurcher immerses his audience in the scarcely fathomable universe that is story, with all its curved spacetime and quantum fields. He refigures Einstein's beautiful formula as a song of Penelope's, its elements warp and woof and weave, loom, shuttle, pirn, thread and braid. He does not present his young readers with certainties, but he makes their lives more interesting and precious.
Ghast, the arch-villain of the book, would have the Honourable Assembly of Bithynia abandon their long traditions of weaving stories in favour of 'managing, packaging and selling' them. Into his mouth the author puts the stinging indictment:
'Who pours by weak candlelight over the heavy volumes of old tales? . . . Who knows them now? Scholars! . . . Scholars who would sooner own a story than honour it, who would sooner scorn a tale than have skill in it. ' (p 414)
Yet Andrew Zurcher proves than he is a scholar who does honour stories, and one who has consummate skill in their making.
The same character also asks:
'For whose sake shall we rebuild our great library? For whose sake re-hang the great tapestried hall?' (p 415)
In and through the very nature of the book he has chosen to write, the author answers his own question. And he answers it correctly. It is for the sake of our children. For them, his book is the future of a wondrous past.
A dying fall
The book closes with an image of a woman playing a piano. I must leave you to discover its import for yourself. Suffice to say that it is the most potent and powerful such image I remember encountering since D H Lawrence's famous poem.
The future status of his book may not yet be determined. But for the present Andrew Zurcher weaves us a story that is breathtaking in its imagining, masterly in its realisation and profound in its resonance. We must wrap its fabulous fabric around us and live for a while cloaked in its enriching mysteries.
There is a particular children's publisher who invites readers to sample by way of a back cover strap saying: 'Try page such-and-such.' To apply that here, I suggest you try pages 232-234. If you share my responses at all (and of course you may not) you will find this passage, and indeed the whole book, deeply affecting.
*Dare one suggest that librarians might be an asset here?
**Reality is not what it seems: The journey to quantum gravity, Carlo Rovelli, pub. Allen Lane (Penguin), 2016