Illustration Vashti Harrison
'Hail creation. Wave-riders, shore-striders, sung by the Moon into being!' (p 74)
Turning a tale
It is August already and my list of contenders for 'Books of the Year' is getting gradually a little longer. Here is one that absolutely must be added. It is a book for the young reading connoisseur, leisurely and lyrical. Its atmosphere and images are often breathtakingly beautiful, a story that fires the imagination and grips the heart. It takes you swimming with seals, surging, twisting and diving through the wild oceans, then hauls you onto rocky shores under a cold and magical moon.
The Selkie legends are found most commonly in the folklore of the remote Scottish isles, but have counterparts in other northern sea-strong cultures too. These stories seem to have a particular pull and potency for both writers and readers. A fair few children's books have a Selkie theme or influence, covering everything from simple retellings of the traditional stories to adaptations and complete reimaginings. They range, too, from pictures books and children's novels into YA fantasies, and, indeed, into many adult books. However, I have come across no finer example than this one. It is truly magical. Like the Selkies themselves, it manages at once to be about characters so human you weep for them and creatures of the ocean, that are familiar and yet so completely other. You swim with them, wild and free in the vast ocean, and rest, peaceful, with them on the pebbled strand. This book's magic is the magic of nature as much of myth, of the sea, of the sky, of the waves and of the wind. Like the pull of the tide, its magic is that of the moon.
Longing for turning
The Turning is a tale which hangs childhood on the cusp, on the shoreline between land and sea, between reality and dream. It is the first person narrative of Aran, a boy born to a Selkie mother and human father. Although he has lived his full life with his Selkie clan, in the ocean and on its margins, he is for the present fixed in human, 'longlimb', form. He yearns desperately for the arrival of his his seal pelt, the 'turning' which will allow him to become his full Selkie self. Later, finding himself abandoned to a strangely unfamiliar life on land, he gradually learns that there are some wonders, as well as horrors, involved in being human. Finally, a soul-wrenching crisis forces him to face who he truly is and wants to be.
Moving and turning
The true wonder of Emily Whitman's book is that, in her hands, this apparently simple story becomes completely involving and deeply compelling. She tells it in translucent, magnetic prose, and captures the thoughts and feelings of Aran so convincingly that the reader is swept through the waters of her story on a tide of compulsion. Our need to know what will happen to him is every bit it as strong and desperate as his own need to understand who he truly is.
Not since I first read Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mister Tom, do I remember developing quite such an intense emotional empathy with a young character. I truly lived through this story with Aran. I shared his thrill in swimming the cold ocean (even though such an activity would have no appeal at all in my own life). I joyed with him in a first true human friendship. I quaked inwardly at the dreadful turn of events which devastated his life and ripped his dreams apart.
Turning inside out
There have indeed been many children's novels about Selkies. There have been even more about a young person's journey towards finding their true self. There can have been few of either more affecting than this one. It is a work of rich imagination and superlative language, a very fine novel indeed.
If you want Aran's story to be just a story, it can be. If you want it to be more, it can be about every child who longs to belong, but fears that they do not. It can be about anyone who has two identities, two lives, which are both their true self. In a way we all live where the sea meets the land. As the author says at the conclusion of her final note: 'We've all got the ocean inside us. beautiful, mysterious, and untamed. Like Aran we are two everythings.' Why else do we so often wish to spend our precious holidays sitting on the shore?
It is a truly beautiful book; one that I cannot commend highly enough.
Although there are indeed many times when you can't, and shouldn't, judge a book by its cover, there are also times when you can. This is one of them. The story's etherial loveliness, its hope and its desperate longing, its familiarity and its otherness, its duality and its wholeness, are all caught quite perfectly in Vashti Harrison's mesmerising cover art. Moon magic. If you love the outside of this book, you will love the inside too, and vice verse.
'Stories were places where two worlds met, swirling around each other like ribbons of foam.' (p 224)
I hope this American author's wonderful new addition to the canon of children's literature will be published in the UK very soon. Meanwhile any extra effort needed to get hold of the lovely US edition will be richly rewarded.