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.
Dido, now nearly 11 years old at the turn of 1835, has been a reluctant voyager for over two years. We discover her in the Moluccas or Maluku Islands, which used to be known as the Spice Islands from the end of the European Middle Ages. Her ship has been diverted to these waters to as a matter of urgency to search for a certain Lord Herodsfoot, who has finally been located at the island of Aratu — the so-called Island of the Pearl Snakes. On landing here Dido and her companions are thrown into immediate jeopardy with the wounding of one sailor, the impounding of the ship, the imprisonment of the doctor, followed by the ‘scrobbling’ of Dido herself. Will Lord Herodsfoot ever be found, and will Dido uncover the secret of the recluse sovereign who is holed up on the other side of the island?
So far this is all as per usual for our feisty young heroine. We expect Dido to get into scrapes, investigate mysteries and face up to adversaries in her many adventures; what we are unsure of though is how exactly that is to happen. Limbo Lodge is, for an island paradise, surprisingly grim. The indigenous forest-dwellers are either exploited, abused or shunned by the colonists, the fauna (such as scorpion- or sting-monkeys, pearl snakes and crocodiles) are life threatening, and the island is in the middle of a zone of active earthquakes and volcanoes. In addition, the companions have drawn the ire of one Senhor Manoel Roy, who’s soon seen to be behind every setback Dido and her friends encounter and misfortunes which include the heartbreaking deaths of innocents.
Readers who express reservations about Limbo Lodge are correct, if what they were expecting (but don’t get) is the telltale light humour that characterised the chirpy Cockney sparrow they’d come to love. I think, however, that Aiken is expressing Dido’s steady maturation. She’s no longer the total innocent of Black Hearts in Battersea or the underestimated yet canny young adult of the next couple of novels; she’s now experienced in the ways of the world beyond her corner of London and thus more resourceful than ever. That doesn’t stop her commenting drolly about the nook-shotten individuals she comes across or declaring that the havey-cavey coves she stymies need to put that in their kettle and boil it. When it comes to enlisting our sympathies for the apparent underdog Philip Pullman is absolutely right: Joan Aiken is indeed a marvel.
I’ll be expanding on many of the points raised above in a series of posts.