'This whole stupid situation - trolls and bears and trains and just all of it - was starting to upset her. Because, while she never would have admitted it, she had always been secretly proud of her ability to understand the nuts and bolts of reality. Now, though, it felt as though that reality was tilting underneath her, threatening to throw her off. She just wanted to make sense of it again.' (p 30-31)
Infinite impossibility drive
Some fantasies create a world that, whilst clearly very different from our own, retains enough of the same cohesion and logic to feel completely credible. The very best of such fantasy worlds often provide metaphors for aspect of our own lives too.*
There is, however, a very different quality of fantasy that is also an important feature of the canon of children's literature, one that builds a world of rampant imagination, paying little if any heed to reason as we know it. Such are the worlds Alice finds down the rabbit hole and Milo enters through The Phantom Tollbooth. Lewis Carroll, Norton Juster and other such writers play with logic by making it illogical. In their imagined worlds illogicality becomes the dominant schema.
P. G. Bell's is just such a world: one where gravity can be redirected at the turn of a dial, so that a train can run vertically; one where, a yellow bear can be the 'firewoman' of an steam engine fuelled by fusion bananas; one where a little girl's house can be a shortcut to reroute a troll postal express. This is, after all, The Train to Impossible Places. It dos not need to embody the possible. Quite the reverse. This train travels 'from Trollville to the five corners of reality.' (p 32). It is interdimensional. Like Dr Who's Tardis, it does not conform to the laws of our physics.
Protagonist Suzy, a girl with a logical, scientific outlook on life, is catapulted Alice-like into this impossible world. Through this sudden fracture of credibility, the author is able to develop a wonderful contrast between her physics, 'which always makes sense', and 'fuzzics', a totally different order for her new world', which doesn't make sense at all - and doesn't have to. It is impossible.
And yet Suzy wants desperately to understand what is happening to her and around her. It is this need, in fact, that leads her to take the wild leap and board the train in the first place. Shortly afterwards, when she first comes face to face with Ursula, the on-board bear, her reaction is typical, fear superseded by curiosity.
'It's going to eat me, she thought. Eaten by a bear in my own house. But the thought that made her saddest was this: Now I'll never get to understand what's happening.' (p 31)
Like Carroll and Juster before him, Peter Bell plays with words and ideas in a way that is both clever and utterly delightful.
'In panic she saw the waves rise past the portholes. . .
"We're sinking!" she exclaimed.
"Actually, we're diving," said Wilmot. "It's like sinking, but on purpose. "' (p 105)
'"As a nation we're positively pecorous."
Every head turned to Neville in bewilderment.
"Pecorous," he said. "It means 'full of cows'. No?" He looked around for a sympathetic face, but found none. "It's a terribly useful word, in the right circumstances," he muttered.' (p 130)
One problem with such illogical worlds is that it can be difficult to build a compulsive narrative within them. When absolutely anything can happen, without rhyme or reason, it is hard to engender anticipation and build tension. But Peter Bell rises magnificently above this potential constraint. His story rattles along, just like the crazy, fantastic, impossible train that it is. But then, how could it not, when it is fuelled by the atomic bananas of this author's wild imaginings?
In many ways, this narrative has both the feel and the appeal of the very best children's animated feature films: it is zany and funny; it positively zings with cliff-hanger suspense; it is brightly coloured and filled with eccentric but loveable characters. Wilmot, the young postmaster, dressed in a uniform many sizes too big, and trying to carry a responsibility to match, must be a strong contender for the most endearing troll in children's literature. Frederick, the less-than-honest prince enspelled into a snowglobe, is as entertaining as he is intriguing - although perhaps he isn't a prince at all. And then there is the grumpy engine driver and his 'sidekick' 'firewoman', who just happens to be a huge yellow bear. This hugely entertaining cast is vividly imagined, and, dramatically balanced by the villainous and power-hungry Crepucula, who appears to be every bit the match for Cruella, Grimhilde or Maleficent.
And through it all rides Suzy, enormously likeable, so easy to identify with in her bewilderment, her trepidation and (yes) her occasional anger, but also so admirable in her resourcefulness, her loyalty and her courage. She is the ideal protagonist, simultaneously who we are and who we want to be.
The solutions to the plot's many dilemmas and crises jump out with predictable unpredictability. Improbable they may be, impossible certainly, but the story has more than enough twists and turns to keep any driver of this wonderful reading train steaming full pelt along its rails. And, when the destination is reached, suffice it to say that the climactic final chapters are not only thrilling but completely unexpected. What else?
In the end, as with a myriad other children's fantasies, yet another whole universe is, of course, saved by the bravery of an ordinary child who turns out to be rather special. However, P. G. Bell's debunking of the situation is enough to turn even this cliché into a delight.
'"How dare you put me through all that!" (Suzy) said. "I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in a snow globe!"
"And it was very noble of you," said Crepuscula. "Perhaps you'd like a sticker or a lollipop or something?"' (p 347)
This is truly wonderful children's reading entertainment, some of the very best I have come across for a good while. It does not try to be profound or 'relevant', and yet its wild, imaginative invention, its clever play with ideas and its sheer liveliness of storytelling lift it into the category of fine children's fiction.
Fortunately for transatlantic readers, there is also a US edition, with the 's' removed from 'maths' and everything. It has a great cover to boot, even though it lacks the gorgeous illustration that hides beneath the dust jacket of he UK hardback. Swings and roundabouts. But it's a rollicking, track-rattling ride on either version of the train. The impossible will make sense, for a while at least.
*As, for example, in Dragon Daughter, which I reviewed very recently.