Harklights by Tim Tilley.
Usborne Publishing 2021.
A match factory which masquerades as an orphanage. A manikin which it emerges was once alive. A monster which in reality mayn’t be alive. Butterflies which aren’t insects. A boy who doubts he has what it takes to put things right. It’s all here in Harklights, a debut novel from the first ever winner of the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize, set in a vaguely Victorian world with elements of fantasy and steampunk.
I’m not usually a fan of long narratives told in the present tense but here I think it works well: Wick’s first person tale gives both a sense of urgency and also uncertainty, just as youngsters’ accounts often are, and while the reader may guess at some of the things Wick puzzles over nothing is truly known until all is revealed.
While our focus is on the narrator’s hopes and fears, behind them all is a tale of despoilation, exploitation and cruelty fully relevant in our contemporary world which will resonate even with the most innocent young reader.
Harklights is the name of a match factory, the kind that supplied the product that Hans Christian Anderson’s little matchgirl sold. Run by the irredeemably wicked Miss Boggett, a witch-like figure known to the orphans as Old Ma Bogey, the prison-like building manufactures Everstrikes matches made from the trees surrounding it, steadily encroaching on Havenwood Forest and endangering the wildlife that inhabits it. When Wick first rescues a miniature baby and then dramatically escapes from Harklights he discovers the existence of hobs, little people who live in harmony with nature. The tensions that arise from leaving his friends behind, conquering his fears, overcoming the suspicions of certain hobs and learning the extent of Harklights’ destructive plans are what drives the story forward until the explosive climax.
The author has cleverly made use of familiar tropes to not only drive through an ecological message but to acknowledge the anxieties that youngsters often feel regarding family, friends, self-worth and potential. Miss Boggett breaks down each youngster’s sense of self by destroying their identies and names, subjecting them to terrible physical and psychological cruelty, denying them the food and creature comforts she herself enjoys. He underlines the notion that we should be stewards of nature, not its masters, but he also entertains, not least in the distinctive monochrome illustrations and map he himself has created for the publication. As he puts it himself, Wild Magic is waiting!
Speaking as an adult I’m not totally convinced of the story’s pacing and of the relationships Wick has not only built but will also build up; but then I’m not the target readership, for whom life may feel like a continuous present and relationships are often mysteries that continue to puzzle. Still, I’m not sure that I’ve entirely come to terms with those conundrums myself.
Though I received Harklights from the author for the favour of a review, I’ve tried to give it an honest assessment. It fits in too with my Wyrd & Wonder reads this month.