An odd read
In many ways this is an odd book. But odd in good ways. In fact odd in quite wonderful ways.
Take its front cover for a start. The arresting, but possibly disquieting third element of the title might suggest that this story is creepy, sinister, even macabre. An odd subject for a children's book perhaps? However, a few gravestones apart, the predominantly pastel-coloured and 'naive' illustration seems to belie this. It is, in fact, this visual impression that more accurately reflects the book's contents, despite the fact that coffins, graves, and indeed corpses, do indeed feature very prominently. That's not to mention the flying fish. But I'll come to those.
Odder still. If I hadn't learned that this UK publication was written by a lifelong Australian resident then I would certainly have had it down as a novel of continental European origin. This is not only because Allora, it's colourfully evoked village, and its inhabitants are Italianate in name and character; the story itself has a 'feel' of belonging to a European tradition of children's fiction. It has much of the Fairy Tale about it, in essence and in telling; something which seems to resonate back much more to the world of Grimm than to the Celtic/Norse tradition which tends to underlying British/US fantasy. There is certainly nothing that I recognise as specifically Australian about it; there is no Patricia Wrightson here. Nor is there the everyday realism of the many books about children with 'issues' that so dominate shelves in bookshops, in many of these countries. None of this is in any way a problem. This book is what it is, and what it is is original and very special. It is a book that does not appear to be trying to be 'populist'. And much credit to it for that. I sincerely hope that it will be popular nonetheless.
A whimsical read
The story, too, is suffused with a level of 'magic' which is actually closer in my mind to whimsy. Allora is famous for its fish; fish that fly right out of the sea in huge numbers and land in the streets and on the roofs of houses, so that its inhabitants always have plentiful free food. This phenomenon is never explained or justified. It just is. Similarly the presence of a magnificently coloured, shimmering bird that flies only in circles. The tale is seeded with impossibilities, large and small, which are however, in the context of the story, simply accepted for what they are. I suppose you could label it 'magical realism' for children. However, to me, that does not quite capture the book's distinct charm. Like the bird, it is better not to try to capture it at all.
An important read
Perhaps the most significant element of this tale, and central to its importance, is the acceptance of death as a natural and normal part of life, albeit sometimes a very sad one for those left bereaved. Although there is much death in this story it is never presented as morbid or frightening. There are no ghosts, ghouls or ghostbusters here, no zombies and no 'otherworld' to be visited. There is just sadness and loss that is, however, balanced, in the end by warm memories and thankfulness for life. So much here is important and ultimately healthy for children to know and to think about.
A compelling read
The story of lonely, bereaved man, dealing daily with death, and an isolated, frightened boy, comforted only by the company of a wondrous bird, is about finding love, consolation and hope. In the end it is totally its own story, written sensitively and quite beautifully. It is a far more entertaining and enjoyable story than this brief synopsis might suggest. It is also a far more engaging one. For such a superficially simple tale, its element of suspense, of desperately needing to know what will happen and how things will turn out, is remarkably strong.
Like I said. It is an odd story but not odd in a bad way. It is refreshingly, delightfully, thrillingly odd.
It is an impossible story, but a totally believable one, and one that captures a great deal of important truth. It is a story where countless small impossibilities finally add up to one hugely impossibility - and everything becomes hugely possible. It is huge with the possibility of hope and love and magic, the hope and love and magic that is Matilda Wood's wonderful book. It is a tale where even a coffin is a vessel of hope, sailing towards a glittering future, across a sea where stories become real.
The wonderful illustrations by Anuska Allepuz echo the veneer of superficial simplicity that ovrerlays considerably potency and profound sensitivity.
You will have to search long and hard for a book with more heart. I am sure it will give comfort and joy to many children for many years to come.
Long may its fish fly.