Cornish dream

Replica vitreous enamel sign

Joan Aiken: In Thunder’s Pocket: a St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

A young lad is sent to stay for a few days with his aunt and uncle in a coastal village in Cornwall, only to encounter mysterious goings-on involving seagulls, sculptures, a curse, a key and an egg. What is the connection between them all, and who or what is the boy from Wicca Steps?

In Thunder’s Pocket is the first of a trio of novelettes for younger readers. Set in Cornwall and featuring Ned Thorne, it is described as ‘a St Boan mystery’ — but it is equally a ghost story, a supernatural tale, as are the two sequels; in fact the official Joan Aiken site categorises the trilogy as Magic & Mystery.

Thunder’s Pocket is an epithet for the town of St Boan because of its storm-prone microclimate. We’re told St Boan is based on the fishing village of St Ives, perhaps as it was in the mid-fifties when the author and her young family lived in Cornwall. Even then it will have been not only a haunt of artists and the occasional holiday visitor but also a place set apart from the rest of the world. It’s a feeling it retains to this day.

St Boan (dedicated to a non-existent Cornish saint, perhaps a meld of Welsh surname Bowen and the prehistoric stone circle at Boscawen-Un) was the home of Malot Corby, a cantankerous sculptress of abstract forms who took offence against Ned’s Aunt Lal. After her death Lal has never been quite the same, letting her hair grow and displaying a vacant manner. It’s up to Ned to find the connections between Malot and her cousin Lal and just what needs to be done to remove the curse on his aunt.¹

At the most obvious level this spooky story is firmly focused on the magic and mystery promised. But Joan Aiken also knows what ingredients to include and how to mix them up to make her concoction feel authentic. The evil entity that survives in an egg is straight out of Russian folktale; malevolent birds emerge straight out of North European lore but are here brought up to date, with the feathered bane of seaside tourists replacing carrion crows and ravens; keys, especially when made of iron, were not only a means to reveal secrets but also to guard against malign influences; and combing hair is supposed to be a sure way to ease trauma, just as cutting it is said to excise negativity.

Ned’s relationship with his Aunt Lal opens the way to shared psychic experiences, a bond that is followed up in the sequels. Ned’s more intellectual side is perhaps encouraged and emphasised by his Uncle Adam who runs the bookshop in the town. And yet overall there is a dreamlike atmosphere pervading the narrative, a parallel reality suggested but never made explicit, which perfectly suits the brevity of the tale.

Without a doubt it firmly appealed to the child in me, a child who totally identified with Ned, the sensitive yet resourceful protagonist.


¹ Perhaps Malot was partly based on the artist Barbara Hepworth, who had returned to St Ives in 1954; this was a year before Joan Aiken had to move back to London from Cornwall so it’s quite possible their paths crossed.

My local bookshop’s Reading Challenge for July was to read a book that can be finished in a day. And thus it turned out

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10 thoughts on “Cornish dream

  1. This sounds really interesting- I like stories with a spooky element but also ones that resolve as mysteries do. Will look out for this one! enjoyed your review 🙂

    1. All I can say is that I really enjoyed this, even though I’m not it’s target audience: it seems to be aimed at a broad spectrum of younger readers, from those who might be termed reluctant readers beginning high school to younger omnivore pupils not quite at the end of their primary school.

      But the author’s propensity for imbuing her books with deep, rich layers of lore, wordplay and sense of place, not to forget attractive protagonists, means that adults can enjoy them equally!

      1. I think that is a feature of all ‘good’ children’s literature, that it’s at the end of it all good literature (even if it isn’t be high-brow).

        1. Absolutely, Mallika: though I think genre tags are often helpful I baulk at tagging children’s fiction #kidslit or whatever because well-written fiction of all genres is what we appreciate. Labelling YA or children’s fiction as such somehow deprecates them, somehow implies that they’re less worthy or accomplished.

  2. In the early 1950’s Joan lived on the South coast, between Fowey and Lostwithiel, (setting of her thriller The Ribs of Death which makes hair-raising use of the railway viaduct!) but loved to holiday in St Ives with her painter husband. Would that we were there…

    1. You mention Fowey, Lizza, and that definitely rings a bell: I did know Joan and Ron (and John and you, of course!) didn’t live in St Ives. But the St Ives setting interested me because Emily lived here for a short while in the late 60s and was familiar with Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth (though she found the town itself very insular in its attitudes and suspicious of anything and everything new).

      Before I chase up ‘The Ribs of Death’ I have ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’, ‘Jane Fairfax’ and ‘Mansfield Revisited’ to read; I think a binge read of non-Wolves Aiken looms!

  3. I find that books aimed at young readers are often more entertaining than the ones for full adults. There is a lot to be said for a clear-cut plot line and straightforward characters.

    1. As ever, Leslie, I pretty much concur with 99% of what you say (I always allow at least 1% as a let-out clause, should I be challenged).

      Other than ‘issue-based’ novels mostly aimed towards young adults, children’s novels largely conform to patterns laid down by fairytale and fable, usually with a happy ending, an implicit endorsement of moral behaviour, and a limited cast of characters.

      But then much canonic or classical ‘literature’ does the same, and it’s really only the last 50 to 100 years that there has been a rise in anti-heroes, morally ambiguous protagonists and the fictional equivalents of ‘misery memoirs’ (the ordinary person as the subject of tragedy rather than movers and shakers as was once the norm).

      While kids need to accept that the world, present or future, is never going to resemble the Big Rock Candy Mountain, kids-lit frequently offers hope and a blueprint for right behaviour, something all us oldies should heartily endorse.

      I think, when there’s enough bad news daily and fake news hourly to hasten us all to early graves, it’s more important than ever to offer up narratives that point out the good bits in human nature.

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