‘She was thin with worrying, our mother. She combed out her long fair hair with her fingers, closed her eyes. She was made almost entirely out of worries and magic.’ (p 4)
I admit I am no saint when it comes to book blogging. Often, the reviews I have in my head pile up on me and it takes far too long to write them up. However, sometimes, but only rarely, I read a book that makes me so buzz with excitement that I just cannot wait to try and find the words to share my enthusiasm. Then I know the title is something very special indeed. And such is the case here.
Of course, I should have known. To a large extent I did. But, even so, I was bowled over by just how breathtakingly wonderful this book is. It is made almost entirely out of worries and magic.
A marvellous boy and a magical girl
I should have expected it because Karen Foxlee is one of my top favourites amongst contemporary children’s writers. Her first children’s book, Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, is a little gem, exploring very real issues through charming fairy tale fantasy and has one of the most endearing protagonist of recent years. (See post March ‘15) Her second, A Most Magical Girl, is more of a ‘total’ fantasy, most beautifully written and, again, with a great deal to say. (Post June ‘17.) And now, hooray, we have her third. It is about young boy with a serious medical problem.
Over recent years, there have been a good number of books about children with ‘conditions’, physical or mental. This sub-genre is epitomised, perhaps, by R. J. Palacio’s understandably lauded Wonder, although books about children with autism may be the most numerous. The best of these books play a very important role in engendering empathy and are most welcome additions to any young person’s reading experience.
A (very) big little brother
That Lenny’s Book of Everything centres, unusually, around a young boy with a condition akin to pituitary gigantism, where a particular form of brain tumour promotes abnormal fast growth, already makes it very different. However, it has many other remarkable features too, that make it stand out, not only from other books of its type but, indeed, from most other recent children’s novels.
Actually, this book is not principally about Davey Spink, the boy with the condition, so much as it is about his slightly older sister, Lenny (Lenora), who is the story’s narrator. Although we learn a very great deal about Davey and his issues, with which the clearly loveable boy copes amazingly, the story essentially explores how Lenny lives with and through the years of her own childhood alongside him. Although clearly a big feature, Davey is not the only trauma in her life. She is also coping with the departure from it of her father, a loss so sudden and complete that it is essentially a bereavement.
All of which may sound very drear and depressing, but, in fact, Lenny’s story is laced through with warmth and humour in a continually delightful way. When Lenny is discussing her brother’s rapid growth with her school friend, CJ (‘a blast of fair hair that wouldn’t stay in the bunches her mother tied. Sometimes she had just one bunch left by the end of the day, like the handle on a teacup ‘):
‘“Like with Jack and the beanstalk, he just keeps growing,” said CJ.
“The beanstalk kept growing,” I said.
“Yeah,” said CJ, who was very wise, “but it’s the same thing.”’ (p17)
Burrell’s Build-at-Home Encyclopaedia
The framework for the story is provided by the fact that the Spinks win a competition, which earns them a free subscription to a part-work encyclopaedia, ‘The Gift of Knowledge’. The regular arrival of its alphabetical issues punctuates, and, indeed, soon become a major ingredient of the lives of both Lenny and Davey. Sometimes fascinating, at others more disappointing, new letters bring new interests into their daily routines and provide major distraction from both the humdrum and the heartbreak. Lenny’s obsession with beetles, and Davey’s with raptors, both derive from their ‘Burrell’s’, as indeed does a dream of escape to the wilds of Canada’s Great Bear Lake, which they both share.
The story has a beautifully evoked setting in the US of the 1970s. This brings with it a good number of references that will probably be unfamiliar to young UK readers, but they should not be a problem. It will be easy, with the internet, for children to explore the relevance of ‘Days of Our Lives’ or ‘space monkeys’, and insights into a culture simultaneously so like and so unlike their own will be enriching in themselves.
But there is an even greater delight to this book. Karen Foxlee’s is some of the most deliciously wonderful writing I have come across in a long time. It is not that her vocabulary is challenging or her phraseology poetically fancy, but rather that she has a quite remarkable ability to turn a phrase, capture an image, and express a thought or feeling in a stunningly fresh and evocative way. She starts at the very opening of her first chapter:
‘Our mother had a dark heart feeling. It was as big as a sky inside a thimble. That’s how dark heart feelings are. They have great volume but can hide in small places.’ (p 2)
And she never lets up. She creates a rich cast of fascinating characters, both children and adults, and conjures them up vividly, often in only few lines. She conveys deep emotions in a breathtakingly communicative way, and brings situations to life that can be heartbreaking at the very same time as they are achingly funny.
‘Sometimes rain made me want to cry, like there was something deep inside me - the sadness flower that opened up when rainy days came, and blossomed inside me until I couldn’t breathe.’ (p 22)
‘My eyes were tired from staring into my imaginings.’ (p 110)
‘We deliberately did not think of the possibility of finding our father. We imagined the cousins across our dark little room instead. . . We imagined them to life. We imagined them bright as stars until they burned behind our closed eyes.’ (p 131).
Karen Foxlee imagines her characters to life , through her stunningly original and potent language, until they burn behind the closed eyes of us, her readers. Similarly, under her pen, the everyday incidents of Lenny’s life fizz with such vividness that they feel charged with electricity.
The voice of the child
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that Karen Foxlee succeeds in turning this breathtaking language facility into the totally convincing voice of her young protagonist, Lenny. It wraps Lenny’s naive perceptiveness in a remarkable sensitivity. Her beetle-obsessed diversions from the realities of her life cushions but never quite shields her from its multiple heartbreaks. It sets her alongside Ophelia (she of the Marvellous Boy) as one of the most endearing and touching of contemporary children’s fiction creations. In this exceptional ability to voice children, Karen Foxlee reminds me of another great Australian writer, Ursula Dubosarsky (see my earlier posts), although both have many very distinctive talents too.
In Lenny’s Book of Everything Karen Foxlee does not rush her story. But its slow unfolding, day by day, month by month, as the alphabet progresses and the part-work Encyclopaedia builds, only adds to our intense involvement in the life of Lenny Spink.
Spinning towards the inevitable
Iterative themes spiral through the story: the arrival of encyclopaedia parts;Lenny’s beetles and Davey’s raptors; the dreams of Mrs. Gaspar, their child-minder; the imagined trip to Great Bear Lake; the unstuck sticker from Buffalo, Wyoming, that is the only physical the legacy of their father. But just when the gyre appears to be widening into the sky, it twists inescapably downwards. You desperately want it not to, but you know it will.
Karen Foxlee is a writer of sparkling genius. Hers is a hard book to read; not one with hard words, but one with a depth of emotion that is hard to take. It is all the more powerful in that it does not overly try to ‘make everything all right in the end’. But those who do read it will be glad they did.
Actually, I would not classify this book with the ‘condition’ stories. It is not really a Wonder or a Goldfish Boy. For me, it belongs with those other great children’s works which deal with loss, yet bring their readers enormous gain - books like Bridge to Terabithia, A Taste of Blackberries, and Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird. It will break the hearts and enrich the lives of countless children for many years to come.
‘Holy Batman!’ Indeed
Thankfully this book has recently been published in the UK. We should again be grateful to the fine imprint ‘Pushkin Children’s’ for bringing us yet another outstanding work of international stature.
For once, the quote on the UK & US covers (above) is totally apt. In the story, one of Davey’s favourite expletives in ‘Holy Batman!’. R. J. Palacio adopts it to describe a response to the whole book. It says it all.