Delayed gratification

Eva Ibbotson:
The Secret of Platform 13
Macmillan Children’s Books 2009 (1994)

A quest to find a missing prince. A portal that opens for a few days every nine years. A rescue mission by a hand-picked team. Obstacles to be overcome — or else disaster follows. Eva Ibbotson writes a witty narrative that combines a comedy of errors with incipient tragedy, likeable protagonists with a dastardly antagonist, familiar landmarks with an insular fairyland straight out of legend.

Forget cranky critics who archly suggest J K Rowling ripped off ideas from this fantasy for her Boy Who Lived series: bar an access to a magical world via a platform on Kings Cross Station in London — Platform 13 as opposed to Nine & Three Quarters — and a boy rudely separated from his parents (and forced to sleep in a cupboard) there is little else that they share … apart from the usual staples of witches and wizards, fantastic beasts and non-magic users.

The secret of platform 13, revealed in the first few pages, is that there is a kind of wormhole to the Island in the disused Gents toilet on Platform 13, access to which is available only during a narrow window of opportunity. Inhabitants from both worlds can use this ‘gump’ but actually very few non-magical people are aware of it. When the baby prince’s nostalgic nurses make a return visit to London they’re devastated when their charge is kidnapped whilst they’re buying fish and chips, and the Island’s Royal Family have to wait another nine years before an attempt can be made to rescue him.

Thus emerges a case of role reversal: traditionally it’s human children who are kidnapped by the fairies, not vice versa. Eventually the grieving parents are able to send a hand-picked team consisting of a wizard, a fey, a cyclops and a young hag called Odge Grimble to locate and retrieve the lost prince before the gump closes again. But the youngster they discover, one Raymond Trottle, turns out to be an appallingly rude, spoilt individual, with a mother whom no one would want to wish on their worst enemy.

Ibbotson’s playing with tropes is clever and, beneath the playful whimsy, serious. Many children harbour the daydream that they are in reality adopted, born to inherit an unknown destiny; here, the author expends some care to show the desperation of parents: the King and Queen who have lost their newborn son, and Mrs Trottle who, childless, selfishly resorts to a cruel substitution to adopt a youngster of her own.

As it turns out, the team of Islanders (including young Odge) and the supernatural denizens of London are more enamoured with the ill-treated Ben (the one who lives in a cupboard) than the awful Raymond, setting the stage for an intricate farce before, one hopes, it all comes right in the end.

Nostalgia for a lost life was a strong thread in Eva Ibbotson’s fiction, no doubt deriving from her family having to flee Austria in the troubled years leading up to the Second World War; it is certainly present in this novel where the lost prince is concerned. While, as with many fairytales, one hopes for a happy and fair outcome, Ibbotson is skilful in deploying delayed gratification: the course of true justice never did run smooth or novels would all be terribly short.

Though not as celebrated as other fantasy writers of her time (such as Diana Wynne Jones or Joan Aiken) Ibbotson remains known as a writer for younger readers, with Dial a Ghost, Which Witch? and Journey to the River Sea usually cited, but she also wrote adult novels, now repackaged for the YA market. On the basis of these she deserves all the renown her works can garner.

2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer, and No 12 in this list

38 thoughts on “Delayed gratification

    1. No, I haven’t read Madensky Square, Ann — only this one here, Morning Gift and Journey to the River Sea, all of which I enjoyed — but looking at the details, including an extract of the opening chapter, it looks as though I may have to! Interestingly, the start of the novel reminds me a bit of that other great children’s classic Howl’s Moving Castle, set in a hat shop, and I wonder if Diana Wynne Jones had read Madensky Square and squirreled it away into one of her mental recesses.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a similar disgruntlement when it was claimed that some of the details of E Neabit’s The Railway Children was plagiarised from Ada Graves’ The House by the Railway:
      E Nesbit’s classic The Railway Children accused of ‘plagiarism

      Next, The Lion King has ‘lifted’ its plot from Hamlet. Meanwhile, Shakespeare has ultimately lifted his Danish prince plot from the legend of Amleth from Saxo Grammaticus, who…
      My contention is that it’s not what you do but the way that you do it…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hear, hear! In music, too. Look at ‘Greensleeves’ and Vaughan Williams’ treatment of it, Not to mention, of course, (modestly} my own adaptation of ‘Three Blind Mice’ in one of my symphonies.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Pingback: Delayed gratification — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. earthbalm

    By a strange coincidence, I have just read my first Eva Ibbotson – “The Beasts of Clawstone Castle” – a Hereford charity shop purchase. Extremely odd but very charming and quite life-affirming. I plan to read more and soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome, Janet, she writes with such apparent ease despite English not being her first language — though as she moved to England from Austria before she was in her teens that’s not too surprising. I’m looking forward to the novels of hers that I’ve acquired since I first read Journey to the River Sea (my review at May give you an inkling of its themes).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As a child I read all the Ibbotson I could find at the local library. This one was certainly one of them but the one I remember best, probably mostly because I happened to have my own copy, was The Haunting of Hiram.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m going to be concentrating on her YA/adult fiction for a bit as that’s what I happen to already have, but I’ll certainly keep an eye out for the younger fiction, including the Hiram title!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh I’m gettin’ this one from the library–it sounds a treat! Any time a cyclops is involved in a rescue mission, count me in 🙂 This’ll be a nice switch-up after a darker MG read I grabbed from the library’s new books area: Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces. A more fitting read for fall, but I’m transitioning from westerns to horror these days… 😉 xxxxxx

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    1. It is a real treat—whatever one’s age! I’m not particularly adventurous when it comes to books, usually staying with tried and tested authors and books, but occasionally I take a chance and get rewarded.

      Only one or two or three books have I totally abandoned in the last year, the latest just yesterday: its blurb sounded good (young protagonist, a mobile library, books) but I just couldn’t get into the scattergun characterisation. At least it was only a book from the library, no money has changed hands… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I also use charity shops to sample unknown authors and books/series (as well as acquiring longed-for titles!), especially when the most local one charges just 50 pence (61 cents at today’s rates!) each. If I don’t like one it’s no big loss — and I return it to the shop so they can sell it again, a virtual win-win situation!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh yes, indeed! Bo and I often buy the kids’ books second-hand unless…um…no, it’s always second-hand. Their interests are usually 10-20 years behind the times, anyway, so that’s where one’s going to find their books of interest. 🙂

            Speaking of finding used, I’ve finally gotten a couple Dark is Rising books used–just not the first, consarnit.


            1. A good feeling when one finds copies of sought-after books at a bargain price, I’ve recently done that with the first couple of Lloyd Alexander books which I long wanted to reread.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Ibbotson I also discovered through a ‘book’ friend on shelfari who read both her children’s stories and romances though she said, she didn’t enjoy her romances on a revisit. Then I found Not Just a Witch on the shop-soiled table at my neighbourhood book shop, and loved it–then bought others. I wish she were better known too–I never came across her books as a child or a teen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She was just a name until relatively recently for me, when Lizzie Ross reviewed Journey to the River Sea so enthusiastically. I hope she becomes better known (many of the ‘YA’ novels have been repackaged again with more attractive covers); interestingly she, along with Judith Kerr, was a refugee from the Nazis, cited as a counter to the UK’s current government’s shameful policy of refusing to allow child refugees into the country. I have no printable words to describe the loathing I have these despicable ministers. ☹️

      Liked by 1 person

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