Slow progress

A kind of holy grail moment: secondhand bookshop interior in Brecon, Powys

Remember Mount TBR? I’d aimed to read twenty-four of my tsundoku titles — books that I’d bought or otherwise acquired before 2017, not including library books and rereads — to achieve a notional Mont Blanc target.

By the end of June I’d managed twelve — just at my halfway point, so theoretically by September’s end I should have achieved another six to reach eighteen books. So how have I done?

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Troublesome games

Jain version of Snakes & Ladders called Jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, gouache on cloth (image: public domain)

Games, thought Dido, they sure cause a lot of trouble.
Limbo Lodge, chapter 8

Joan Aiken’s 1999 novel Limbo Lodge was entitled Dangerous Games in the 1998 US edition, and this gives us one clue for a singular way to approach this instalment in the Wolves Chronicles. In the novel Lord Herodsfoot is James III’s roving ambassador on the hunt for new and entertaining games, but as well as the games that get mentions in these pages there is the game that is life-or-death, the winning of which Dido Twite and her companions must clinch. It could be argued that Joan Aiken fashions Limbo Lodge as a board game metaphor, with Aratu as the board and individuals as pieces. Is it possible to justify this?

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Break

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)

A temporary post to let regular readers know I shall be offline for a little while — but not to worry! I shall return in due course with, hopefully, further goodies. Like Icarus in Pieter Bruegel’s painting my disappearance will hardly be noticed in the general scheme of things — but, unlike Icarus, I hope to swim back to the land of blogging. The odd post has been scheduled for my absence, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get any immediate feedback to your responses …

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Forest peoples

Map of the Moluccas by N Sanson (1683)

There’s too much blame mysterious about this island.
— Dido’s observation in chapter 6

This is another post in the series giving the background to one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Limbo Lodge. This instalment focuses on the islanders of Aratu, the island that Dido finds so full of mysteries. I can’t help being reminded of some of the issues that are raised in novels like Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Alison Croggon’s The River and the Book, issues about land exploitation and deforestation and the effects they have on local populations and ways of life. In Limbo Lodge we sense there may be some rapprochement between communities towards the end, a rapprochement that sadly doesn’t seem to be common in our own world.

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Who’s who on Aratu

The Return to Hong Kong. The Vulture Passing the Battery Upon Tygris Island.  A steam-powered frigate similar to the ThrushHMS Vulture is here seen passing Weiyuan Battery, Anunghoy Island near Canton (Guangzhou) April 1847 (image: Royal Museum Greenwich)

In Joan Aiken’s Limbo Lodge we meet with a number of individuals who haven’t appeared elsewhere in the Wolves Chronicles. Joan (see, we’re all on first-name terms!) is adept at making these individuals distinctive so that we don’t get too confused as to who’s who on the island of Aratu. Linking it all together is of course Dido Twite, whom we first encountered as an 9-year-old London urchin in Black Hearts in Battersea but who now dresses as a young sailor lad after more than two years at sea.

Here follows a prosopography of the main named characters in the novel, a sort of index raisonné in which I try to account for Joan’s choices for her dramatis personae. Remember, look away now if you don’t want massive plot spoilers revealed!

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Cynical but insightful

Nick Yapp: Bluff Your Way in Teaching
Ravette Publishing 1998 (1987)

This fell out of the bookshelves recently where it had somehow got wodged in and unnoticed. I didn’t ignore the irony as I myself had somehow got wodged into school education, only managing to extricate myself many years later by the skin of my teeth (and with my heart in my mouth, just to mix metaphors). I couldn’t finish this when I first came across it for it was much too painful — despite its deliberately humorous take on the state of pedagogy it was too close to the madness that pertained in British teaching at the time, and no doubt still does. Would a revisit bring back the pain?

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The Island of Pearl Snakes

Banda Api volcano erupting May 1988. The most recent activity began in April 2017

Joan Aiken’s Limbo Lodge (1998) is one of the most detailed of the Wolves Chronicles to date, certainly in terms of the chronicles’ internal chronology if not their writing history. I have copious notes taken over the years on the characters, on the Aratu language, on board games around the world, on the novel’s timeline and on its literary connections. Here I want to talk about the geography of the fictional island of Aratu, on Joan’s possible inspirations for it and why she may have set her story in this part of the southern Pacific.

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Rooms in a doll’s house

Tove Jansson: Art in Nature
Dockskåpet (1978) translated by Thomas Teal
Sort Of Books 2012

Art in Nature presents us with extraordinarily intimate portraits of Finns and others caught up in a variety of situations. Taking its English title from the first of these eleven offerings by Tove Jansson, its original Swedish title was actually drawn from the fifth story, ‘The Doll’s House’. I can only assume it was retitled to avoid confusion with Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, but it is just as apt as a label for the whole collection because many of the subjects have a connection with artistic endeavours, through sculpture, cartoons, drama, novels and painting.

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Dido in danger

HMS Pomone (c 1820) naval frigate built 1805 at Frindsbury; colour lithograph by T. G. Dutton after painting by G.F. St. John (public domain image)

Joan Aiken: Limbo Lodge
(Dangerous Games in the US)
Red Fox 2004 (1999)

On the back cover of my edition of Limbo Lodge is a quote from Philip Pullman:

What I relish in particular is the swiftness of the telling, the vigour with which brilliant moments of perception seem to be improvised in the sheer delight of the onward rush of the story. Joan Aiken is a marvel.

This adulatory comment (said to be from The Guardian) is cited everywhere online but I can’t discover if it’s actually part of his review for this particular book. It’s certainly true of Limbo Lodge, as for all of the Wolves Chronicles, but for me what stands out most is how much rich detail Aiken includes, and how many corridors leading off from the main narrative avenue just beg to be explored. For example, board games are everywhere, a metaphor for the moves that Dido Twite and her companions have to constantly make if they are not to lose their lives. Twists of fate, as illustrated by the Tarot, can also determine outcomes. There are stern critiques of misogyny, racism and colonialism, not unexpectedly, but also parallels with Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest, whether consciously introduced or not is hard to decide. And — given that Arthurian themes pervaded The Stolen Lake, the title that chronologically precedes Limbo Lodge — there are faint echoes here too of the Once and Future King in Aiken’s tale, of the medieval sin of accidie and of restoration.

But Pullman’s description of swift storytelling and the spontaneous vigour shown in brilliant moments of perception is spot on, strengths which lead one to first rush down that corridor, leaving the side passages to explore in a later rereading.

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Into the woods

George Frederic Watts Little Red Riding Hood (1890: public domain)

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat
Faber & Faber 2015

An impressive debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat thoroughly deserves its plaudits. Part magic realism, part fairytale, part contemporary fiction (at one stage the 9/11 event is playing out on television) Kate Hamer has created an unputdownable story that has had many readers finishing it in a night, though I steeled myself to stretch it out a bit longer. Its theme is a harrowing one for anyone with a child, namely the disappearance of that child without a trace. The author swaps between two viewpoints, the mother Beth Wakefield and her daughter Carmel, so we see developments through both their eyes; and, as time goes on, we too begin to wonder if there will be any optimistic resolution to Beth and Carmel’s tale.

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Dido and the Spice Islands

A display of Vintage children’s books on offer in Book-ish bookshop, Crickhowell

We last left Dido Twite in South America, about to finally sail back home to England. But Dido is finding out that things don’t always go to plan when she sets off on her voyages. She had been shipwrecked in the North Sea, transported whilst in a coma via Cape Horn to north of Alaska, thence to New England. With the promise of a return to England her passage was diverted to the east coast of South America. And now, surely, she must be deserving of that homecoming? No, for now she finds herself heading to the Spice Islands in the South Pacific!

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