A heart-warming tale with a twist

First snowfall: Pembrokeshire road

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 quite up to Aiken’s usual high standard — though that’s not to minimise its effectiveness. 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.

A new edition of this novel is published on Saturday, September 1st 2018
This review was first published October 2012, reposted September 2014 and again now
An excellent post on the background to this book is published here, written by Joan’s daughter Lizza

13 thoughts on “A heart-warming tale with a twist

  1. i LOVE Joan Aiken, but I’ve never read this! I am an ‘Is Underground” and “Wolves of Willoughby Chase” fan, and I love her historical era which never existed. As you say: always a pleasure to read, Her imagination is something I envy.


    1. Yes, I’ve enjoyed all those Dido Twite stories too, Kate, having come to them relatively late, though I did very much enjoy her collections of short stories with a fairytale flavour many years ago first, very classy and often humorous. Hope to re-read them again soon and review them. Incidentally, 2012 is the 50th anniversary of ‘Wolves’.


  2. Asfar as I can remember I have only read Wolves of Willoghby Chase (once as child, once as adult (to my children) and listened to the Arrabella and her Raven stories on Jakanory. I’d like to read more but your review suggests that this one isn’t the best. Which one should I read next?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Where to start, Simon…
      Any one of her books of short stories: there are themed collections featuring magic, fairytales and horror so you can take your pick according to taste; there is a series of quasi-historical stories called the Felix Brooke trilogy, which I’ve also reviewed; and there are the numerous sequels to the Wolves story beginning with ‘Black Hearts in Battersea’ which I’m saving to review until after I’ve moved.

      Short answer: any and all of Aiken’s fiction is worth a try!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Simon: one of my favorite standalone Aiken books is “Midnight Is a Place.” For short stories, Small Beer Press in the US recently published a one-volume collection of all the Armitage family stories, “The Serial Garden,” which is a lot of fun. Hope you discover something you love!


    1. Good pointers, Lory. And I’d also recommend the excellent and fun official site joanaiken.com for browsing titles and genres, and the delightful joanaiken.wordpress.com blog run by her daughter Lizza.


  4. elainethomp

    I reread it recently and am still fond of it. Unlike every other boarding school story I’ve read the adults and seniors-with-responsibility characters actually are competent, aware and useful. There’s no big dramatic turn around with Cosmo and his classmates, just gradual deeper acquaintance growing into friendship. It is a relief after all the standard boarding school trope stories. (yes, including Potter.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I must read it again, and could well revise my opinion. Aiken doesn’t see bullies as always beyond redemption: in The Whispering Mountain Owen gradually earns grudging respect from the boys of the town football team who at first victimised him, then saw his virtues.


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