A place for your heart

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Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell.
Faber & Faber, 2013.

A baby girl is found floating in a cello case after a packet boat sinks in the English Channel, La Manche. Rescued by the thoroughly eccentric Charles Maxim she is named Sophie and brought up in a rambling house in London. And all will apparently be well until officialdom in the person of the upright and stern Miss Eliot arrives.

Charles is soon deemed to be an inappropriate guardian and Sophie looks destined for an orphanage. But what if Sophie’s mother also survived the ship sinking? Is there a clue to be found in the carcass of the cello case?

Then begins a desperate search which will take the two fugitives, Sophie and Charles, to Paris where – as in London – a battle of wits and skills will take place between officious, sometimes corrupt adults and the pre-teen Sophie and her child-like yet wise guardian Charles.

Fin de siècle London, with horse-drawn cab.

Almost as soon as she could walk, Sophie could climb. She started with the trees, which are the quickest route to the sky. Charles came with her. He was not a ‘no-don’t, hold tighter’ sort of man. He stood underneath her and shouted. ‘Higher, Sophie! Yes, bravo! Watch out for the birds! Birds look wonderful from underneath!’

Chapter 3

This passion for climbing and for being brave stands Sophie in good stead when the pair go on the run to escape authority figures like Miss Eliot. Sophie has also to keep out of sight of the French authorities, which means that at night she ventures out onto the mansard rooftops of Paris, where she meets an urchin, Matteo, who teaches her the tricks of surviving off the ground and the skills of parkour before it was officially invented.

But the trip to Paris is to find out more about her mother’s cello-case – who made it and who owned it. Charles goes out every day to find out more, without apparent success – will the solution come from a speeded-up tune from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem?

For its target audience this is an engaging story, about daring to be different, about attempting every ‘possible’ that comes one’s way, about believing you will find what you seek. Does Sophie find her cello-playing mother, and does she survive the sometimes brutal and frequently dangerous life under the sky? These are the questions that will draw young readers into the story despite, and sometimes because of, all the hardships it describes.

Rooftoppers has won many literary awards, but for this adult there are many harder to answer questions. When is this novel set? From the contemporaneous horse-drawn cabs and early motor-cars this seems to be set at the tail end of the Victorian period or in the early Edwardian age, though the author is never specific about this. Is it feasible that there’d be ‘sky’ urchins along with Paris street urchins? The author tells us she was inspired by periods she spent working in Paris and of trespassing on her Oxford college roof.

Young readers may relish the descriptions of Sophie’s existence, which swing from humorous episodes to quite visceral experiences, but I was more concerned with loose threads. I wanted to know what happened after the final page, how Sophie’s new friends reacted, how Charles shimmied up drainpipes with a cello on his back, how Matteo was motivated to learn English. I fear I may be forever disappointed but who am I to argue with its audience and the award committees? Especially when there are so many beautiful passages and bons mots like this:

Mothers are a thing you need, like air, she thought, and water. Even paper mothers were better than nothing; even imaginary ones. Mothers were a place to put down your heart. They were a resting stop to recover your breath.

Chapter 4
Gottlieb Daimler’s car in Paris, 1889

The author’s voice is a distinctive one, and like her protagonist both fierce and independent. Her spirited and wonderful defence of children’s literature, Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, was my first introduction to her work; and though I may be a little bemused by Rooftoppers I’m nevertheless looking forward to her other work

15 thoughts on “A place for your heart

  1. Katherine Rundell started climbing as a Cambridge undergraduate so she knows what she’s writing about. I Ioved this book and I’m afraid when something captivates me I am rather uncritical. I must say I gave it to a twelve year old and he didn’t love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there are recent photos of her with fellow author Kiran Millwood Hargrave on an Oxford College roof, and a brief bio in my edition of this novel explicitly mentions her love of climbing out on them. (Rather like Lyra in Pullman’s books.) It’s odd, both unsettling and yet good, to know we can all whatever age we are have completely different responses to a novel!

      Glad you loved it – as I say, there’s much to admire in this, in the writing, in the themes, in the feel of it. Weirdly, I got vibes of Peter Pan in Kensington from this – orphans, turn-of-the-century European city, parks and roofs.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Incidentally, I was wondering which bit of the Fauré Requiem Sophie’s mother was playing double-speed on her cello, and I came across this video of the ‘Pie Jesu’ played in an arrangement … on a cello.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How interesting! I think if you read children’s lit as an adult you often have to turn off your more critical side and go with the flow and the story. Yet the questions you flag up are valid ones, even for a book aimed at younger readers. Though I do like the premise!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The premise is definitely great, Karen, and precisely what drew me to this – that and a tale set in Paris to boot!

      I do think though that turning off one’s more critical side as an adult reader is easier with some fiction than with certain others, whether or not notionally aimed at young readers; so a really good children’s novel should have the capacity to appeal across all ages. It’s a tough call, I agree; I’d hesitate to cite an example right now!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your review makes me think of Jonathan Auxier’s ‘Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes’, another tale involving rooftops and orphans — even a sea-bound foundling! I shall have to look for this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The plot is in a broad way on the lines of Auntie Robbo which I had on Shelf Control this week, and I do like the idea of the story very much even if (from an adult perspective) too many questions seemed left unanswered. One I’m tempted to look up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The overarching plot of your Shelf Control title is similar – adult takes child on journey, child meets similar kids – and there’s a kind of excitement with the pair daring to be different and feeling a bit transgressive about it; that’s always an appealing theme, isn’t it, the sense of being naughty while trying to do the right thing!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Katherine Rundell’s writing style appeals to me and I agree with you that there’s much to admire in this book. It’s some time since I read it but I do remember thinking that Charles was an appealing character and that the scene setting was particularly well done. However the ending was a little jarring for me, like you I wanted to know more and felt there were questions unanswered. When I mentioned this to other adult readers at the time they said that was part of the book’s ‘magic’. Maybe I’m just too tidy minded! I enjoyed reading your review, Chris. Have you read The Explorer? That’s completely different in style.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm. That ‘magic’ didn’t quite affect you or me in quite the same way as it did other adult readers, did it! I see Rundell has written a prequel involving Matteo but what I’d have preferred would’ve been a sequel about Sophie, her mother’s story, Charles, the significance of the Fauré, the other rooftoppers – *sigh* I don’t think I’m asking for too much!

      But I’ll be looking out for her other stuff including The Explorer, thanks, Anne.

      Liked by 1 person

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