The whole sky ablaze

The Tulip Touch
by Anne Fine,
Puffin Books 1997 (1996)

Everyone thinks they can see things when they look back. It’s nonsense, really, I expect.

This award-winning teenage novel — it was the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 1996 — is a hard-hitting psychological portrayal of an abusive friendship which poses the eternal question, are people ever born evil? It also asks whether it is enough for people to shake their heads and pass judgement while assuming it’s somebody else’s responsibility to deal with the root causes of antisocial behaviour.

But it wouldn’t be enough for a work of fiction to be preachy, it has to engage the reader in personal stories and relationships, and to put that reader in the position of thinking, would I behave like this or act like that, especially if they were an impressionable youngster like the narrator.

And adult readers may also pause to consider how even grown-ups can be powerless to change situations, either because of their own inadequacies or because systems aren’t in place to allow justice to be done. Through moral ambiguities, challenges and personal courage we are led along the narrative path this novel hastens to take us.

At first sight this has many aspects of fairy tales — a princess in a palatial dwelling, a changeling-like child whom she befriends, a child-beating ogre figure, mind-reading, and so on — but don’t search for a happy ending, or indeed any ending that is as neatly resolved as fairytales are: this is a story which has much that the reader can believe as being all too realistic, despite some magical trappings.

Narrator Natalie’s parents manage hotels and, while she is still at primary school, with a younger brother at the screaming stage, the family take charge of a hundred-room residence called The Palace and its grounds. Despite much repair work needing to be done the hotel is a warren for Natalie to explore and lose herself in. Soon afterwards she and her father come across a solitary waif standing in a nearby field and take her under their wing, but it is soon clear that Tulip is a very strange, even a very dangerous individual.

The ‘Tulip touch’ of the title is hard to define exactly: at one level it’s the baleful influence that Tulip Pierce has over Natalie Barnes, at another it’s the behavioural tics that Natalie herself tries out on other people — cunning words, feigned ignorance, disconcerting actions, disdain — following the lessons she had learned from her young tutor. At its base, the Tulip touch is exerting control over victims, often in the most cruel way possible, and it takes the form of games with names like Fat in the Fire, Days of Dumbness, Rats in a Firestorm and Stinking Mackerel. Through primary education and on through high school Natalie remains under the dominance of Tulip — until her conscience eventually starts to get the better of her.

The first sight of the Palace Natalie has with the whole family is on a day when “the whole sky was ablaze. And on the lawns on either side of her, the peacocks spread their glimmering fans.” Mr Barnes believes it’s a good omen, but Natalie feels differently:

I stumbled out of the car, and suddenly the sky seemed too high above me, the grass too green. And then one of the peacocks let out the most unholy cry, and I was filled with such unease.

That vision of a sky on fire is one that will come back to haunt her when one of Tulip’s games involve pyromania, with no thought of who may be physically affected, and this will prove a turning point in their relationship.

This is a powerful piece. Anne Fine paces her story well, with many short chapters leading the reader on to the next chapter, and then the next, all in a bid to discover how this abusive friendship will resolve, and how many unfortunate bystanders it may affect. The mix is masterful, with psychology and suspense, distinctly drawn characters and years passing, all broken up by incidents coming briefly into sharp focus: and Natalie, with her weak will and strong sense of guilt, is an entirely believable narrator for not being perfect.

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