“I don’t want to spend my life guiding the dead, and feeling all their joys and sorrows. I want to live my own life, with my own joys and sorrows. . . I want one life. My life.’ (p 289)
Late to the party
Yes, I know, I am shamefully late in getting around to this one. It took a CILIP Carnegie Medal shortlisting finally to precipitate it, even though I have been meaning read the book for ages. Moreover, The House with Chicken Legs has now had so many accolades and reviews that almost everything that can be said by way of recommendation probably has been. Yet, for all that, I was still so taken aback by just how wonderful a book this is, that I couldn’t resist adding my voice, even at this late stage.
I have to admit that, generally, I am no great fan of the current fad for narrative written exclusively in the first person present tense. There are exceptions though, and this book is certainly one of them. The immediate intensity of the protagonist voice is here quite magically caught. The book also has many other exceptional qualities that make it stand head and shoulders above many other recent works of children’s fiction.
Old Russian tales
What I am, however, is a fully committed aficionado of fantasy fiction that is rooted deep in legend and folklore. It links a contemporary story to heritage, inherited truths, the origin of which may be long forgotten. Sophie Anderson’s tale scores highly on this front, building richly on images from Russian folk tradition. Such tales have only rarely been exploited by Western children’s literature, so this has the double benefit of bringing fresh imaginative stimulus, and an insight into a culture very different from ours, whilst still providing memes that resonate with a common humanity.
A second thing that makes this novel stand out is the sheer power and engagement of it storytelling. Without being a rollercoaster adventure, the story nevertheless moves through a sequence of engrossing twists and turns. Some of them are truly shocking and all of them completely compelling. The vividness of the author’s drawing of protagonist, Marinka, ensures that we travel her personal journey ever eager to know what will happen to her next. The skill of her narrative construction leaves us always breathlessly enthralled. Other characters too, like her grandmother Baba and her friend Benjamin, are rich and appealing, as are the shifting, and often deeply touching, relationships which develop between them. In another strongly imaginative twist, these characters include not only a bird, but a very special house too. (One with chicken legs, of course.)
Life not death
Yet there is one quality in the book that outshines even these exceptional delights, and that is the richness and depth of its ideas. The core of the story is that of the ‘Yagas’, semi-immortal beings whose role is to guide the dead through the last gate and towards their eternal destiny amongst the stars. Marinka is brought up by a grandmother who is one such Yaga, and the girl herself seems destined to become her elder’s successor in time. The tale is very much about life and death, and yet it is never either morbid or particularly frightening. It is, in fact, often almost poetic, a paean to life. It is passionate yearning for life, not death, that drives Marinka’s personality and actions. As the story develops, she learns many lessons about what it means to be alive and readers will share much of that thoughtful education with her.
‘I am not sure,’ she says at one point, ‘how long I will get to spend with Benjamin, but I will appreciate the time I have. I wish I had appreciated the moments I had with Baba more. Nobody is yours to keep. Nothing is for ever.’ (p 314)
The earlier and more deeply we can understand these truths the richer our life will be. Perhaps children will not get all the way there, but this book well help on that journey of understanding . And, in the final analysis, the story does celebrate something that is for ever - life. Not just our own life , but life in essence. This book is a most powerful working through of what it means to be human and to be alive. As such, is a most wonderful contribution to the canon of children’s literature.
Elisa Paganelli’s internal illustrations, often strewing flowers or stars across pages that are occasionally black as well as white, also add beautifully to the atmosphere of this very affecting tale.
‘I see the whole universe in the tiny puddle and I smile.’ (p 337)
So far this year, I have read several quite brilliant children’s books by Australian and American authors. Although there are many fine books by UK authors around, I have been searching for one of fully equal calibre. Now I have found it. This book deserves every one of the accolades it has received - and more. The biggest advantage of discovering it so late is that it is not too long to wait until the next one.
For any who enjoy the opportunity to compare and contrast, Whichwood, by Tahereh Mafi, although perhaps for slightly older children, explores a similar scenario. It is also, in its own, different way, a very fine novel. (See post from Feb ‘18)