Grave concerns

A Tale of Two Glass Towns
by Nicola Friar.
Olympia Publishers, 2023.

Two timelines: 1999-2000 and 2019-2020. Two settings: Norfolk and Cheshire. Two protagonists – or are they the same? And multiple themes: computer bugs and viruses, aliens and refugees, glass manufacturing and Verdopolis. Nicola Friar’s debut children’s novel weaves personal matters into a more universal narrative about how we, whether young or old, try to deal with weighty matters like acceptance of difference, fear of the unknown, and the ache of bereavement.

Seen largely through the eyes of seven-year-old Theo, this tale aims to reflect the anxieties of a youngster trying to make sense of a confusing world on the cusp of the 21st century, anxieties manifested in vivid dreams involving an amorphous fog, a graveyard, and Bob – a bichon frise – who acts as Theo’s psychopomp through the mists of time.

It’s a brave endeavour to write about what one personally holds dear in a story that ostensibly is pure fiction, but the author to a large extent walks that liminal path with a careful and determined tread. The result is a narrative which, though not quite perfect, should appeal to the sensitive young reader who shares similar worries about what the future may hold for themselves and for their nearest and dearest.

© C A Lovegrove

Theo’s mother is gravely ill in hospital so he’s sent across the country to stay with his maternal grandparents, with his Aunt Nina and her boyfriend James at hand to help. Nina works with refugees but relaxes with books on science fiction, T S Eliot, and Brontë juvenilia, features of which loom large in Theo’s imagination. He becomes increasingly worried about the Millennium Bug that’s in the news, and about aliens crash landing nearby, an obsession that gets boosted whenever he hears Chris de Burgh’s song ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’.

Nearby is a graveyard attached to a ruined chantry which Nina and other volunteers visit to tend and tidy the old graves, especially one known as the Glass Man’s tomb, and Theo often accompanies them. It’s here, twenty years later, that an older Theo pays a visit as news of another bug, a pathogen that could precipitate a pandemic, starts to proliferate. Do the lives of younger and older Theo run in parallel two decades apart or do they somehow cross paths, causing confusion?

Nicola Friar’s children’s story is simple on one level, speaking to the young reader of the genuine worries and apprehensiveness that kids are prey to, when external events they don’t understand may permeate dreams which border on nightmares and which may be mistaken for reality. On another level it’s drawn from the adult world, addressing lives and issues that are far from simple.

Manuscript in miniature by Charlotte Brontë

Refugees from conflicts, families torn apart are one strand; life-threatening illnesses, prejudice and violence represent another. Local industries at risk such as glassmaking (maybe like Pilkingtons in St Helens) and tales of Glass Town by the young Charlotte Brontë and her brother and sisters as they grew up in Yorkshire’s West Riding mingle in the storyline, along with the toy soldiers the siblings used to play with. The title also echoes that of the Dickens novel in which a doppelgänger plays a key role, reminding us that not all is necessarily as it seems in this current tale.

Rich in themes, and accurately reflecting how easy it is for the young to misinterpret situations, A Tale of Two Glass Towns is deliberately expressed in relatively simple language, avoiding too many adjectives, adverbs and subordinate phrases so as not to clutter up the text. At times this may feel a bit tiring to an adult reader, as may the prevalence of telling in place of showing, but at least it helps to eliminate ambiguity.

Above all this is a story which encourages bravery in the face of the unknown and hope when situations appear at their bleakest. Crises will always arise but often the tears we shed may be those of joy not sorrow, relief and not despair.

© C A Lovegrove

I received a review copy from the author in return for an honest review. The novel, which was published on 26th January, is the debut full-length fiction by a writer who blogs as Brontë Babe at, posting mainly about the juvenilia of the Brontë siblings Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.

18 thoughts on “Grave concerns

  1. Wow, this is intriguing and I love this connection between the events of 2000 and 2020, one being too much hype and the other too real. Also, you taught me two new words. That’s always a good day. Thank you for the review. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, happy to contribute to making your day good! Now I’m curious about those two words – I’m guessing psychopomp might possibly be one… ? Meanwhile two bugs, a score of years apart, are indeed collectively a good combo for a plotline, as Nicola offers here for young readers. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A children’s fiction debut that sounds right up my street. Since childhood I’ve been intrigued by stories that play with the idea of time. Thank you, Chris for such a tempting review. I too had to look up psychopomp!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Psychopomp” is such a lovely all-purpose word, I love it! And here it has a special relevance to the author – Nicola’s blog posts nearly all end up with a remembrance of her own much-missed bichon frise Bob, who thus finds his way into a kind of literary afterlife.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds well worth finding. Interestingly, however, when I visited Green Knowe last June, Lucy Boston’s daughter-in-law told me that sales of the series are down (according to librarians/teachers she speaks with) because children don’t want to read about protagonists younger than they are. Tolly is just 7 in The Children of Green Knowe although that is not revealed right away. I don’t recall if that was something I paid attention to as a child – I doubt it – but I was more of a vacuum cleaner than a typical reader!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve a couple of new-to-me Green Knowe titles to read – waiting for the right moment! – but I can see they mayn’t necessarily appeal to today’s young readers: they definitely have a nostalgic appeal to us oldies but the magic in them is not the crash-bang-wallop wizarding kind that usually meets the expectations of teens and pre-teens, and to many of primary school age the scenarios may just be beyond their comprehension, do you think?


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