‘They all have better outcomes when they are together.’ (p 356)
I have had an exceptional run of reading recently and found three mind-boggling, brilliant books in a row, all of them, as happens, by American authors. Ever if they’re not great on Presidents right now, they do have some truly wonderful children’s writers over there.
This third exciting read was not as much of a surprise though. Anne Ursu has been well up my list of all-time favourites for some while. Both Breadcrumbs and The Real Boy are ‘modern classics’ of children’s fiction, as entertaining as they are profound. I know of few, if any, better examples of using fantasy elements as metaphor for very real and pertinent children’s issues. So I have been eagerly awaiting her latest novel The Lost Girl, and believe me it is no disappointment. It joins its two illustrious predecessors as a book that is both riveting and revelatory, from a writer of breathtaking skill and imagination - as well as deep humanity.
An amazing opener
From Chapter One is is clear that we are in the hands of a world-class, and very classy, children’s author. For a start the language is skilfully strong without being the least bit heavy or pretentious. It is used to communicate powerfully, to conjure image, to enchant, and, here, at the tale’s top, to intrigue.
‘This is a story of a sign and of a store. Of a key. Of crows and shiny things. Of magic. Of bad decisions made from good intentions. Of bad guys with bad intentions. Of collective nouns, fairy tales, and backstories.’ (p 3)
Quite wonderfully, what follows is all of these things, and more. More behind. More beneath. More beyond.
This early piquing of the reader’s curiosity is further heightened by the intrusion of an unidentified narrator. The mystery of who they are will develop as one of the principal drivers of the story, and the ultimate staggering reveal of their identity is one of the novel’s pivotal moments.
Basically, the tale is one of identical twin girls, often a matter of fascination in itself. Here . . .
‘The two sisters were alike in every way, except for all the ways that they were different.’ (p 1)
One twin, Iris, is competent and organised. However, much angers her in the world and, when it does, she tries to argue what she sees as the cause of righteousness. When the world seems not to listen, her lack of success is a source of further anger and frustration, although not of discouragement. She is not trying to be Supergirl:
‘Really, all she wanted was to be able to organise the world in a way that made sense, and that was not a superpower. Though it felt as impossible as one.’ (p 185)
In contrast, her sister, Lark, is disorganised and creative. She tries to imagine the world better, to recreate it the way she needs it to be through art and play, by making it anew in her dreaming.
‘Getting to Lark’s bed meant traversing a jungle of Lark’s things - Library books, bits and pieces of her various collections, bookstore books, stuffed animals, drawings, half-finished Rainbow Loom puppets and knitted scarves.’ (p 30)
The sisters are, in many ways, complementary. Are they, to some extent, different aspects of one personality? Or different approaches to a single problem? Is either the best one? The right one? The real one? This book asks many such questions.
Against the twins ‘realistic’ home and school life is played out a fantasy concerning a weird pop-up antique shop with very strange signs, and an even stranger proprietor. This Mr. Green claims that he, and his shop are magic. He has lost his sister and the sudden appearance of his store, its contents and its notices, are, he says, all devices to further his goal of finding her again.
The interplay of these two worlds, that of the twins real life and of the ‘magic’ shop, are at the fascinating and compelling heart of Anne Ursu’s fiction. The ultimate collision of the two constitutes its devastating climax.
The other principal development of the plot is precipitated by a decision taken, without the twins knowledge, by the adults in their life. It is taken, they are informed, ‘for their own good’. And that decision is to split them into different school classes, a separation they have never had to experience before and one that they decidedly do not want. Its effect on them is more than confusing; it is more than unsettling; it is destabilising in many ways and on many levels.
‘Lark got home from art camp . . . full of talk of negative space and perspective and colour theory, while Iris had no stories to tell. Iris had no colour theory, no perspective. Everything remained grey and mushy. And everywhere she went she couldn’t escape the feeling that she was the wrong girl.’ (p 165)
Much is leaned from their separation, but not necessarily for the good, and the author’s charting of the disintegration of their personalities is quite brilliant, if devastating. Which twin suffers most? Which is more dependent on the other? The ground shifts shockingly under them, and under the reader. There are more questions than answers.
The story is full of enigmatic, but strangely potent, images: the mysterious shop with its odd signs, bizarre non-magical magical inventions, and an even weirder ‘well of magic’; crows, both solitary and in murders - crows that both take things and bring things; a doll’s house, fantastically transformed by one of the twins; unique specimens of nature and art stolen from society. The book builds itself on image and metaphor At least something of their meaning becomes clearer as the layers of this onion story are peeled away. But not all. This book, like life, holds some of its secrets close, to be pondered, to be teased at, even to worm their way into a reader’s dreams.
And yet there is story here too - and what story. As well as all the mystery and intrigue, the narrative engenders a deep commitment to the twins. The tortuous journey of their separation, sometimes amusing, often heartrending, and frequently deeply disturbing, keeps the pages turning relentlessly. This is as much ‘What will happen?’, ‘How will it all turn out?’ as it is ‘What does it all mean?’. In short, it is a riveting read.
By the later stages of the book a clear, simple message does emerge. This is a deeply feminist novel. The sorority of young girls from ‘Camp Awesome’ demonstrate their collective potential and power in the final confrontation with the patriarchal proprietor of the magical store. The conviction of ‘stronger together’, epitomised by the twins, is of no little importance, to the author, or to the girls of our world.
‘They had better outcomes when they were together.’ (p 27)
But there is more than this to this fine, but challenging book. This is deeply feminist book, but that does not mean it is a book only for girls. (Actually I do not believe that any books have genders in this sense.) Anne Ursu has one of her character pertinently point our that patriarchy hurts boys as well girls. It hurts humanity, and this is a humane book as well as a feminist one. Mr Green’s crimes are against humanity, against the birthrights of us all as well as specifically against his sister, the girl he has ‘lost’. It is an important book for all children and the world in which they themselves wish to grow up.
It is not an easy or comfortable book. It is one to read and then return to. Its profound themes and enigmatic images do not give up their full meanings easily. I have spoken before of ‘books to grow up with, and to grow up through.’ The Lost Girl’ certainly belong in this category. It is a book to help our world grow as well as each of us as individuals.
One of the most mind-blowing images in the book is the disappearance of a fabulous sculpture acquisitively stolen from an open air gallery. The art piece described is an imagination-boggling work entitled ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’. And, hey, what do you know? It really exists. And, thanks to the twins and their friends, we seem to have got it back, in Minneapolis and our world. Good on you, Amazing Girls.