John and Carole E Barrowman
Buster Books 2012
“In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors.” — William Blake
A good forty or more years ago we visited Great Cumbrae off the west coast of Scotland for the first and so far only time. It was winter, the New Year in fact, we were entirely inappropriately dressed (loons, for heaven’s sake!), we had meant to take the ferry to Arran but had come to the wrong port, and we were young and inexperienced. There was nothing to do but walk round the island (it kept us warm, at least!) and catch the ferry back to Largs, so that’s what we did. So it was a bit of a shock recently to pick up the Barrowmans’ book Hollow Earth and discover that the island of Auchinmurn in the story was recognisably Great Cumbrae by another name (called after their Scottish grandmother, we are told). True, some of the geography was changed, even the orientation, but John Barrowman, who was born in Glasgow, and his older sister Carole Emily will surely both have had strong childhood memories of the island (no doubt from that same period in the early seventies) and will have tried to infuse that excitement into the writing of Hollow Earth.
To a large extent I was impressed by this tale of twins, Matt and Emily, who have genetically acquired the abilities to not only communicate to each other telepathically but also to animate images, both ones they have sketched and then increasingly those merely envisioned. Together with their new deaf friend Zach they fight to understand and counteract the power struggles that the adults round them are waging in order to further dangerous and mysterious ends. The action, which begins in London, moves swiftly to the two small islands in the Firth of Clyde, and after a rather confusing start we are pitched into a sequence of nightmarish events. There is a resolution, of sorts, but there are also many loose threads which you sense will be followed in subsequent volumes.
I’ve seen mentioned the inevitable comparisons with the Harry Potter books, and of course there is magic, a trio of close-knit youngsters, an avuncular Dumbledore figure and shadowy figures who mean harm. But a much closer parallel will be with the Famous Five books of Enid Blyton, acknowledged as among the Barrowmans’ favourite childhood reading: all that messing around in boats, secret passages, old houses, mysterious adults and island adventures. Another aspect of the Famous Five books that seems to have also leached into the events of Hollow Earth is the youngsters’ relative freedom to do what they choose and go where they please, a feature of British life in the fifties but less common in these days when concern over ‘stranger danger’ looms larger. Despite the obvious perils that emanate from both the natural and the supernatural worlds, the adults responsible for the trio seem increasingly irresponsible and on occasions inexplicably unconcerned about their safety which, as a reader, I found alarming and unconvincing.
At the inconclusive conclusion of the book a surprisingly large number of adults have been badly injured or have disappeared, so it’s clear that a sequel or sequels was planned back in 2012; in fact, the Hollow Earth of the title is only alluded to a few times during the course of the story, and we are left expecting to hear more in due course. I’ll probably read any follow-up for the sake of completeness though not with as much enthusiasm as I started this; the narrative was exciting enough but I was not over-impressed by character motivation. But then I’m an adult, and I probably would have been fascinated if I’d read it at the age of the target readership.
Still, there was a lot of background detail to get one’s teeth into, especially the references to art history and art works (the related website for this book and its three sequels is particularly informative), and one has to admire the sheer inventiveness that melds together the authors’ invention. What with their respective backgrounds — John Barrowman was Captain Jack from Doctor Who and Torchwood, and Carole is an English professor — that’s only to be expected of course!
Review from July 2012 slightly revised