In the lion’s den

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eventually — has resulted in the death of others in his family, and it is to save him from a similar fate that she has withdrawn them both from the world.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.

High Sunderland Hall, Halifax

A final entry for #RIPXIV Readers Imbibing Peril?

11 thoughts on “In the lion’s den

    1. I would hazard a guess that Anne Fine intends characters like Dr Marlow to be polyvalent for those of a literary bent: Dr Marlow — Doctor Faustus — Christopher Marlowe — Charles Marlow — Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s Charles Marlow being a seaman may have suggested Daniel’s uncle Captain Jack Severn (who sailed the seven seas?) and who seems to be a compound of both Conrad’s Marlow and Kurtz.

      But yes, do read it and see what you think!

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Alyson Woodhouse

    I read a fair amount of Anne Fine as a child, but never came across this one. I’m glad it has the potential to work for adult readers, as I’m quite tempted by it, especially so I can spot references to and influences of other works of literature.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. All I knew of her as an author was that she’d written Madame Doubtfire, the inspiration for the Robin Williams film, but I hadn’t read any of her fiction up to now. As a homage to Edwardian narrative I thought this worked well, especially with ensuring the turns of phrase and the language sounded authentic.

      There was also a sustained sense of menace, aided by the first person narration of the young protagonist with his mix of innocent trust and suspicion. What adult titles would you recommend, Alyson?

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      1. Alyson Woodhouse

        I didn’t realise she had written fiction for adults as well, but looking online, she seems to write dark stories about dysfunctional families, which in many ways is a continuation of many of the themes she explores in her children’s literature. My own favorite as a child was Bill’s New Frock, which in a strange kind of way probably introduced me to the concept of feminism. Step by Wicked Step and Goggle-Eyes were good also, as they made a point of demystifying the idea of step families. The thing I always appreciated about her writing was that she was able to explore issues of childhood and growing up without being didactic and heavy-handed. There was plenty of room for humour also, so there was a good balance between light and dark. I certainly think you would find things to enjoy in her fiction for children, and indeed adults too.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for these recommendations, and your appreciation of her literary worth, I shall definitely be looking out for these and other titles by her, especially now that I’ve enjoyed this one so much! Another visit to the local indie bookshop is on the cards!

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    1. If you don’t mind being mentally disturbed then the Henry James is a good place to commence your Halloween journey into the past! Alternately if you like the notion of dolls houses as miniatures of a real edifice then there’s Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe which features one, as I’m just now finding out. 🙂 A great deal less menacing than Jesse Burton’s The Miniaturist which, having watched the small screen adaptation, I’m more anxious about reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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