Darkly imagined universe


Cornelia Funke Reckless Chicken House 2011

Through the Looking-Glass
the Brothers Grimm live again,
but a life more weird

Best known for their collection of fairy tales, more so than for their pioneering philological researches, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (their surname translates as ‘fierce’) are the inspiration for the main characters in Cornelia Funke’s novel. Jacob and Will Reckless’ surname — echoing the Grimms’ — means ‘headstrong’, ‘rash’ as well as being a bona fide English surname. When the historic Jakob Grimm was 11 their father died, much as, when Jacob is around the same age, the fictional brothers’ father disappears. Later, the two real-life brothers trained in law before getting deeply involved in researching folklore and folk-customs, and the older Jacob moved in with Wilhelm and his new bride; in Reckless, meanwhile, the unattached young adult Jacob finds himself in an alternative fairytale world joined by brother Will and his girlfriend Clara against his wishes. It is clear that Funke has determinedly drawn on the lives of the Brothers Grimm to structure her tale (the first of many, we are to presume) of magic and fairies set in archetypal Teutonic black forests and Central European cities.

What other influences can be seen in this novel? Of course many, many of the Grimms’ fairytale motifs are referenced in the tale, but for me a key story is one which is not so well-known in the English-speaking world, the significantly-named ‘The Two Brothers’. In this Grimm tale the two brothers’ lives are strongly linked in parallel, and when one of them gets turned to stone by a witch the other has to find a way to restore him. This is so reminiscent of reckless Will’s flesh becoming jade-like stone by the black arts of the Dark Fairy that I’m pretty sure that the tale furnished much of Funke’s plot mechanism. Add to that the coincidence that the name for the reddish carnelian stone (so similar to the author’s own name) is derived from a Latin word meaning ‘flesh’, and Reckless seems to become a much more complex novel than may first appear. Not only that, but Jakob died in 1863, around the time that Lewis Carroll was working on the first Alice book; and the looking-glass as portal to another world which Funke uses for this, her first Mirrorworld novel, was famously used by Alice in the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

But I digress… Reckless is another of Cornelia Funke’s darkly imagined universes, where jeopardy is around every corner and there is little to laugh at. At first sight this might seem to be merely a variation on the device she utilises in her marvellous Inkworld trilogy, of imaginary worlds accessible to inhabitants of our own, but here there are differences in its application. Jacob is much older than the main protagonist of Inkworld, the plotting is tighter and the story more focused. There is also the sense that as the strands of Jacob’s personal world unravel so do more clews appear to take us into the next volume. It also feels shorter, and the frequent criticism of the Inkworld tales outstaying their welcome is not likely to be leveled so much at this first Mirrorworld installment.

A feature that does re-appear is the inclusion of Funke’s pencilled illustrations. There is much to enjoy in some of the marginal sketches, but some of them could have done to be critiqued before they appeared in print as they don’t all meet a high standard. I did, however, like the motif of the looking glass heading each chapter with a different image relevant to what followed. I also liked the use of archaic names for places which we know as Britain, Lorraine, Vienna and so on.

So, a final verdict? The language of the English version is beautifully taut and full of understated poetry and conceits, and the short chapters made me just want to read just a little bit more, and a little bit more… This is the start of another lovingly created series from Cornelia, to be followed by Fearless.

This review, which first appeared in July 2012, is here slightly revised

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