Cover: Helen Crawford-White
‘Strange how the extraordinary and the ordinary separated themselves and lived side by side. Strange how quickly the unbelievable became almost, if not quite, normal.’ (p 90)
A childhood of magic
Alongside reading piles of books, I spent a good deal of my childhood leisure time practising magic tricks. I think it all started with a Christmas present of a ‘David Nixon Magic Set’. (David Nixon was the Dynamo of his day, but not quite as dynamic. Magicians weren’t in those days.) Like many other youngsters, I guess, I used to imagine being able to do real magic instead of just parlour tricks. A little later I discovered Paul Gallico’s wonderful (but now, sadly, neglected) The Man Who Was Magic* and it became one of my frequent re-reads. Little wonder, then, that I am attracted to books about magicians, and couldn’t resist this new one from Guy Jones. It turned out to be a real find.
Initially the storyline, about a boy from a split family, bullied at school and neglected by his work-obsessed father, feels a little deja-vu in terms of children’s fiction. However this is significantly offset by the author’s use of skilfully evocative description and his very sensitive and highly credible handling of the thoughts and emotions of protagonist, Alex. It is also good for others to see that ‘middle-class’ children, of which Alex is clearly one, are not in any way immune from life’s traumas.
However, it is the introduction of ‘real’ magic, into Alex’s aspirations as a stage magician, that truly brings this narrative to life. The discovery of a trio of fire-magic ‘jinn’, together with their ancient keeper, plummets the story into dramatic and engrossing action. And whilst the juxtaposition of actual magic and real-life complexities could have been an uneasy one, it is not so here. The catalyst of fantasy only enriches this tale of fractured family, lost friendship and childhood dreams.
The magic of childhood
Guy Jones turns out to be no slouch in constructing an engaging narrative, and he succeeds in springing a number of intriguing twists. Indeed there is one major surprise which even I, as a very seasoned reader of such books, didn’t see coming, a rare phenomenon indeed.
In the end, this is a novel of no little depth, of thought as well as of feelings, and the issue of how much children need to use external magic to be special, when they have a particular natural magic of their own, is well explored - with a satisfying resolution.
Although the recent prominence given to strong girl characters in children’s fiction is important and timely, in a current publishing scene where such girls protagonists predominate, it is a welcome balance to have a novel with a central boy character, especially one of imagination and sensitivity. Not that The Fire Maker lacks a strong girl character too. In fact, whilst many other books also feature pre-adolescent boy-girl friendships, this one is handled with particular insight and originality.
This is a book that will, I’m sure, ignite many an imagination, as well as showing that others can find growing up difficult too. A neat trick.
*Although I am pleased to see that his delightful Jennie, another childhood favourite, is still around in some bookshops.