Joan Aiken: The Scream
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)
Edvard Munch’s expressionist work The Scream is justly famous for its haunting quality: a figure shrieks in the foreground while in the background of the original painting a lurid red sky is reflected in the waters of a Norwegian fjord. Two figures are strolling along a walkway away from the figure, intent perhaps on the two vessels at anchor or the port which can just be discerned by the steeple of the church.
Munch’s painting has not only given its title to Joan Aiken’s children’s book but also furnished one of the many themes that run through its pages. An iconic image that has found its way onto objects as mundane as a whoopee cushion given to the author transforms into a screech that causes a fatal traffic accident, a shriek that recalls a banshee’s cry which in turn inspires a composition by obscure composer Ronald Runaldsen, and a howling storm that produces a wave fit to swamp the puny boat of any owner who foolishly ventures out.
David and his sister Lu-Lyn are orphans living with their Gran, Mrs Drummond, in a tower block in Kirkbrae, a town on the northern tip of Scotland looking to the Atlantic in the west. As a result of the accident that killed his parents Davey, the young narrator, is confined to a wheelchair while his sister dreams of just two things: ballet and returning to Muckle Burra, the island where both she and her Gran was born.
But things are not going to turn out well, just as they haven’t since the remote island was deliberately poisoned by scientists after its population was evacuated. (Gruinard Island off the west coast of Scotland was the basis of this plot device: in 1942 it was contaminated with anthrax spores to test whether the bacterium might prove effective against Nazi Germany, and not declared safe until it was treated with formaldehyde in the 1990s.) Gran’s uncanny ability to rid her former island community of pests has been inherited by Lu-Lyn, but instead of using her talent for the good of others Davey’s sister uses it to deal with the bullies who taunt her, with unforeseen results.
This short novel is dominated by just three characters, Davey, Lu-Lyn and Gran. Davey is the almost passive observer: he barely initiates anything but has a sense of fair play. Gran is “thin and spare and old and cobwebby”, an ironic self-portrait perhaps of the author herself, then in her seventies. Lu-Lyn is by far the most dominating figure, intense, determined, creative and dangerous, with “a grin she could switch on and off like a blowtorch”. She it is who keeps a pigeon, in defiance of the rule of no animals in the tower block; she who devises a terrifying dance involving three spectacular backwards leaps to the music of The Banshee’s Exile; she who desires to return to the island, come what may, though the return may not be as she imagined it; and she who — very possibly — appears in the guise of an angry pigeon to forestall a deed that she doesn’t want to happen.
For Lu-Lyn is a very disturbed adolescent. Her scream — which incidentally precipitated the motor accident — is amplified throughout the tale by horrific events like the killing of a bird, the blinding of a youth, the felling of a mighty tree before its time. A dark tale indeed, dark enough for some readers to question its suitability for youngsters but one I feel which the target audience can well take in its stride.
The whole narrative is drenched in a brooding Scottish mist of old traditions maintained by small communities. A tidal race is called the Laird, topographical features are named after silkies and kelpies, an older magic based on blessings and curses hovers just out of sight but not out of ken. The tension builds and builds until the final wave resolves everything while leaving an emptiness behind. This is not a story for the faint-hearted but, so long as it doesn’t render you confused, it beguiles during the telling and remains spellbinding long after.
First posted 24th February 2014.
I shall be scheduling a couple more of these reposts while I’m theoretically incommunicado by the seaside.
And here is a reminder that, under the hashtag #WilloughbyReads a bunch of Twitterati will be reading or rereading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase over a fortnight from July 29th: