Wonder and comfort

© C A Lovegrove

In Darkling Wood
by Emma Carroll.
Faber and Faber, 2015.

Can history repeat itself and, if so, does it repeat exactly? This is one of the questions underlying this children’s fantasy, one which on the surface seems to be about whether fairies are real but which has profound undertones of loss and fear.

There are two timelines running in parallel – one in November 1918, the other in the same month in the present day – but there is also a ghost timeline which only becomes more solid as the story unfolds. We read letters written by a young girl to her brother, a soldier in the Great War as it comes to an end, yet it takes a while for us to see what links this correspondence with Alice whose poorly brother Theo is waiting for a heart transport.

What is clear is that whatever inhabits Darkling Wood feels threatened by the woodland’s immanent felling and that this fear will have an impact on Alice, her family and the local community. Three threads then with sibling lives at risk: will the outcomes for each be the same?

Photo by Frances Griffiths of her cousin Elsie Wright and friend in 1920, Cottingley, Yorkshire

In real life two girl cousins from Cottingley in Yorkshire took some photos in 1917 which, when developed, showed miniature female figures dressed in contemporary casual styles hovering on gossamer wings. Though many at the time cried ‘hoax’ the author and spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle took an interest, believing the girls’ story.

Though she’s unfamiliar with this historic incident Alice’s chance meeting, when despatched to stay at her grandmother’s house, with what she takes for a Traveller child in Darkling Wood has her disbelief in the existence of fairies severely tested. When she’s told she’s a Chime Child, with the ability to see ghosts and other beings, she still doubts what she sees or is told. But her anxieties are heightened by so many imponderables: will her brother survive after a transplant, why is her father estranged from Nell – his own mother and Alice’s grumpy grandmother – and why does she have to temporarily attend a local school when antagonism and pity are adding to her woes?

Emma Carroll has interwoven her strands of story exceedingly well, inviting the reader to second-guess what’s afoot and how things will turn out. It very sensitively deals with children’s worries surrounding death as well as their concerns with the environment (as encapsulated in Darkling Wood). And it also emphasises that children can be confused, undermined and exasperated when adults fob them off by either dismissing fears or refusing to level with them.

Yet in truth this is not an issues-based novel full of preachments, rather a tale of mystery, wonder and comfort, and as such worth the casual reader’s investment in time and engagement.

Wyrd & Wonder 22: tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.com

16 thoughts on “Wonder and comfort

  1. So true, the observation with which you start, of much fantasy being on the surface about fairies or magic or enchantment and beneath the layers being more sombre in their exploration of loss or search for a home. Eva Ibbotson comes to mind as does for that matter The Horse and His Boy where the search is for a safe space. Handling these themes from childrens’ perspectives with sensitivity is no easy task. A new to me book and author, but one I’ll certainly be looking out for

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting that you say this book as described reminds you of Eva Ibbotson because that’s exactly a review quote on the cover: “For fans of Eva Ibbotson.” The author has another two fantasies under her belt though this is the first one I’ve read; and from the blurbs for the other two it sounds as though she again captures those emotions you point to.

      I think you’d enjoy her writing, Mallika. My only quibble here was with the language the girl used in 1918, but then Nesbit’s children also sound quite modern at times so I won’t push my niggle too far!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is fab – I’ve never read it but must get a copy. Your description reminds me of I Coriander, by Sally Gardner, where a parallel fairy world exists alongside England in the Puritan Commonwealth. Fairies are such an amazing mechanism for exploring the unconscious, powerful archetypes as one steers through times of suffering.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That Gardner book sounds fascinating, and seems to have been well received. I get what you say about fairies and their appeal as a way to tap in our psyches – provided they’re handled well, of course!


  3. I’m just catching up with you review, Chris and agree with your comments, I thought the combination of the two timelines and the dual narrative worked well. Having read most of Emma’s books I wonder if you may like Strange Star too. It’s inspired by Frankenstein and Mary Shelley.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Now I’ve started her oeuvre I don’t think I’ll be stopping, Anne! But first I have a couple of Ibbotson titles to read with whom she’s been compared with. Strange Star does sound intriguing!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d forgotten about I, Coriander but now recall liking it, although not as much as Eva Ibbotson’s books of which I am such a fan I once wrote to her and received a lovely response. I will look for this author!


    1. Oh how delightful to have a response from Ibbotson, authors who warmly reply (hopefully recognising a truly appreciative spirit) are worth their weight in gold, especially with their taking time from writing. I had a splendid response from Diana Wynne Jones, sadly Iong after I left Bristol, and I suspect she borrowed some ideas I wrote in an article which appeared posthumously in The Isles of Chaldea; I wrote about it here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-chaldea


  5. Goodness! I remember reading about the Cottingley pics a long time back and remember thinking about them in the same manner as I think about UFOs. That is: Not Real. So much for reading SFF!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, the SFF stuff one reads is so often more convincing (because well written) than faked-up photos of fairies and UFOs – I’d go with SFF every time! Anyway, the Cottingley fairies, who could possibly have guessed they’d be au fait with current fashions in dress, make-up and hair styles?!


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