Anne Fine: The Devil Walks
Corgi 2012 (2011)
A spiral has but one path to the centre, and like a whirlpool it may seem to suck you into its depths. A maze, however, gives you options, a chance to follow a different way should you so choose.
Anne Fine’s Gothick novel, aimed at young adults but no less engaging for more senior readers, offers its protagonist Daniel similar chances to escape the spiralling path of his life, one which seems to have consigned him to the life of a recluse in a sick room, fated to a permanent limbo of existence.
Until a Doctor Marlow comes calling, and releases him into the world. But at what a cost, one that will mean pain and death for some, and pangs of misery for our Daniel: will he have been freed from one lion’s den only to find himself in another?
Daniel has spent his childhood mostly in bed, with only his mother for company. He has books to read, and a dolls house to while away his leisure time; but unbeknown to him his mother Liliana has sequestered them both in Hawthorn Cottage, a secret cloister to hide them both from an evil that threatens them harm.
This malevolence, we will learn — as Daniel does, eventually — has resulted in the death of others in his family, and it is to save him from a similar fate that she has withdrawn them both from the world. But to no avail: the neighbourhood whispers about an invalid child, similar to those about Colin in The Secret Garden, lead the well-meaning Dr Marlow to bring Daniel to his family home and results in Liliana being tipped over the edge of reason.
To say much more would be to give away the twists and turns of the plot, but suffice to say it all turns on lace-making needles and the intricately-constructed dolls house with its contents. A child would recognise the fairytale themes of the wicked uncle and the clear reference to Jack and the Beanstalk. Adults however may spot, in the finely-wrought narrative designed to resemble a late Victorian or Edwardian fiction, other more closet literary resonances.
First of all, there is the influence of Henry James, particularly of his The Turn of the Screw, in the shadowy presences at High Gates and its setting in what one imagines to be the Sussex Downs. At the climax of the novel I detect echoes of Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre and even the Bluebeard-like residence in Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, whose atmospheric plot and themes often parallel those of The Devil Walks. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea may hint at the origins of Uncle Jack’s obsessions during his travels around the world, and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness may have suggested the name of Marlow for the loving family of Daniel’s benevolent rescuer.
The fact that Daniel is the narrator allows us to sense the frissons of fear that he feels, his vacillation between trust and suspicion, his gradual education in the ways of the world after so long an early isolation. Modelled on traditional melodrama this may be, but the author manages to eschew the emotional clichés and give us a window on the anxieties that beset growing minds.
A final entry for #RIPXIV Readers Imbibing Peril?