Cover: Matt Saunders/Joel Holland
‘What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.’
T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets
Albie Bright, Jamie Drake, Maisie Day, and now Charlie Noon
When modern physics reaches for its boundaries, for the unimaginable vastness of astrophysics, and the equally unimaginable minuteness of quantum physics, it seems to encircle a globe of understanding from the two different directions and meet in much the same place. Of course, this place is not unimaginable at all, or else human understanding would never have reached it. Imagination is how it is reached, and the edge of comprehension is where it lies. It is indubitably a place of some of the most complex and challenging thinking in all science.
Yet, it is this very realm of ideas that Christopher Edge has sought to bring to children - and has done so quite superbly in his set (*1) of recent books. He has done it so well, and so importantly, because he has done it through the medium that children can often understand best, the medium of story. He knows that story can bring subliminal, intuitive assimilation, even where explicit intellectual understanding is beyond reach. He has made himself the thrilling master of such books. And now he has added another mind-bogglingly brilliant novel to this set.
A Night in the Woods
This time his subject matter is the concept of time itself. Consequently, if this novel feels a little distinct in quality from the earlier three, it is because it is as much about metaphysics as it is about physics. It is as much about the thinking of T.S. Eliot as that of Albert Einstein, as much about the fiction of Penelope Lively or Alan Garner as about the science of Steven Hawking or Carlo Rovelli. Rather, perhaps, it is about the meeting of minds of all of these and more (*2).What Christopher Edge has so skilfully created is science and philosophy, poetry and mysticism - for young minds. It is quite an achievement. I can only say little of the much he has created. You must read it for yourself, and, more importantly, so must our children.
A great deal happens to Charlie Noon during this longest night, and the story has many layers, many levels. It takes place in the Wild Wood. It is the Wild Wood of Kenneth Graham (*3), the wood of imagination, of story. It is also the Wildwood of Roger Deakin (*4), the ancient woodland of Nature. Perhaps these two woods are ultimately much the same, the wood in which we must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. They exist in time, and out of time, in past and future, eternally present.
Christopher Edge, has consistently made more literary sense than most of narrating in the first person present tense. Here, it is particularly germane in a story about time that is always present. Think of the author , in his crafting of this book, as much akin to a stage magician. He is tricking you with clever sleight of hand. (Perhaps here we should call it ‘sleight of pen’.) As with the magician, it does not matter that you know that he is tricking you, he will fool you anyway. He is immensely clever at misdirection. Once you see what he has done, you will kick yourself for not getting it earlier. You will realise that the clues were there all along - small, subtle, but there. You should have known, but you didn’t. That is how clever he is. But his meaning is in his trick. It was never what you thought. You could never see from where you were standing. He had to fool you to get you to see. You had to lose yourself in the Wild Wood in order to find the answer. The way forwards was the way back. Much of the clue to the story is in code, and that is important too. Once again, when you have cracked the code, you will think you knew how to read it all along. But of course you didn’t. And I am certainly not going to tell you now. It must remain an enigma. I will not give away the conjuror’s secrets. Where would the magic be then?
However, if you think all of this exploration of abstruse ideas sounds dry and intellectual, then you couldn’t be more wrong. Christopher Edge’s great talent is to be able to explore his challenging themes through dramatic and very human narrative. This story of three children lost overnight in a wood is compelling; by turns, funny, frightening, affecting and shocking. His characters are as vivid and real as their experiences are fantastic and bewildering. Again, sorry, no secrets. All I will say is that it ends well, or, at least, has the potential to do so. Dawn follows the long night, and the new day is wonderfully in tune with the natural world, quite literally.
‘Another bird starts to sing and another and another and another. Whistles and warbles, chirrups and tweets; flurries of notes falling like rain inside my brain. The sound seems to be coming from all around, every bird singing at once, their melodies twisting and twining until my mind is filled with an ocean of song.’ (p 174-5)
The final message of this story is one of the most crucial for our children. And that makes this a very important book, as well as an entertaining, puzzling, thrilling and challenging one. It is a book for those who want children to think big thoughts, and live big lives. It says to us all, those who are children, or have been, or will be:
‘You can’t stop what’s coming, but you can help to shape it into something better. . . . The actions you take will change the world.’ (p 170/171)
(1) The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, The Jamie Drake Equation and The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day. These books are stand-alone stories, not a sequence, but are linked by their ability to explore difficult scientific concepts through engaging narrative.
(2) Christopher Edge helpfully lists many of his sources/inspirations under his ‘Acknowledgments’ at the back of the book.
(3) The Wind in the Willows, 1908
(4) Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees, 2007