Cold Shoulder Road
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox Books 1996 (1995)
Mums and kids better stick together
Hang in there whatever the weather
Hold in a chain that none can break
Hold together for the future’s sake …
The sequel to Is (US: Is Underground) is another of Joan Aiken’s unputdownable novels in her Wolves Chronicles. The villains are as villainish as ever, with few redeeming features, the young (and not-so-young) protagonists are regularly scrobbled, and much of the fairytale action which would normally be regarded as implausible acquires a degree of reality through Aiken’s powerful storytelling.
Rich in details, the novel dovetails chronologically into the rest of the series but can be enjoyed—just about—as a standalone. Most of the action takes place in Kent, along the coast from Aiken’s beloved Sussex, but in Aiken’s usual timeframe where the 1830s and early 1840s are not quite as the history we are more familiar with.
Young Is Twite, fresh from saving child miners from drowning when a tsunami caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla floods their undersea coal mine, comes south with her newfound cousin Arun to his hometown of Folkestone in Kent in a bid to reunite with his widowed mother Ruth. But, true to the ways of this alternative world, nothing is straightforward; and heartache, danger, villainy and death will be experienced before natural justice reassert itself.
In the timeline of this alternative Kent Is and Arun Twite will come across smugglers using the Channel Tunnel (which in reality only opened on 6th May 1994), havey-cavey coves called Admiral Percival Fishskin and Dominic de la Twite, child hostages, a religious sect who enjoin silence, an intimidated rural population, and a countryside recently devastated by a mighty gale and ‘flood-wave’ reminiscent of the Great Storm of 1703. Impossible as it is to summarise this rapid-fire narrative, suffice to say it begins with screaming and ends with singing.
Like many of the other instalments in the Wolves Chronicles Cold Shoulder Road is hard-hitting, steely in its depiction of sociopathic exploitation and, for all its fantasy, evocative of some of the historical realities of the period. Yet it also includes moments of tenderness and even humour, and is filled with song and music: “Speech is the queen, and music is the king,” runs one refrain; and in the concept of ‘thought talk’ or telepathy there comes the sense that through it can also flow sympathy and empathy.
Other themes concern cavities — not just the Chunnel but also Kentish dene holes, tunnels with lost treasure, and Frog’s Hole, the alternative name of Cold Shoulder Road — and ships variously named Dark Diamond, Victory, Merry Gentian and Throstle. And through it all shine bright images such as a naval frigate high and dry in a chestnut tree, a diamond necklace called the Living River, shiny coins from the reign of Charles II, colourful phrases such as famble-snickers and duke-irons, and striking similes such as a child concentrating on thought talk “like a cat collecting spit for washing.”
One rhyme reminds us of the ambiguous nature of the extended Twite family, whose adventures many readers have been following for some time.
Twite smile, Twite smite
One’s wrong, one’s right
One’ll help you with all his might
One’ll Rob ye out of spite
One’s dark, one’s light
One’s day, one’s night
One’s blessing, one’s blight
Twite smile, and Twite smite.
In Cold Shoulder Road one has to quickly learn which Twite is which, if blood really is thicker than water, and when mums and kids need to stick together.
Review first published 19th March 2011 but after a reread now revised and expanded. Part of my revisit of all the titles in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, it will be followed by the familiar discussions of people, places, timeline and themes — though not necessarily in that order.