Joan Aiken The Shadow Guests Red Fox 1992
Joan Aiken was one of those children’s fantasy writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life. The Shadow Guests opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.
Cosmo has been sent to stay in what at first appears to be a rural idyll outside Oxford. His female cousin, an eccentric but reassuring Oxford don that I wanted to like, is, strangely, the only weak character in the story: I couldn’t quite accept that an academic could come up with some of the pseudo-scientific language and concepts that she occasionally uses. However, Cosmo’s experiences as a weekly boarder at a minor fee-paying school on the Woodstock Road, though seemingly anachronistic for the 1980s, probably reflected the arcane and traditionalist nature of that kind of institution which no doubt continues to this day; Aiken may have drawn on her own experiences as a 12-year-old at Wychwood Boarding School in Oxford in 1936.
The core of this novel is Cosmo’s attempt to cope with the notion that his bloodline was cursed around two thousand years ago: do curses work, and if they do can they persist over the millennia? I was unconvinced both by the ability of certain present-day characters to recount circumstantial details of all that time ago and by the final dramatic resolution of the mystery in the closing pages. However, Cosmo was an admirable and personable boy, he called on inner resources when faced with paranormal experiences, and was very much in the mould of the traditional British lad familiar from Empire writers, exhibiting all those commendable virtues that perhaps were disappearing in the late 20th century. In short, it was a heart-warming tale if a tad unrealistic, given the supernatural premise.
So, for me, a Boy’s Own tale that worked on many levels but one I didn’t feel was up to Aiken’s usual high standard. And the shadow guests of the title? They are the manifestations of individuals from Cosmo’s ancestral past, some less shadowy than others, and not all very welcome as guests. At least this aspect worked as well as any of the ghost tales that I’ve read in her supernatural short story collections.
First published October 2012