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