Someone of her own

A Carriage and Pair, with Coachman (1774) by Paul Sandby (Yale Center for British Art, Wikimedia Commons)

Joan Aiken: The Cuckoo Tree
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1971)

Our young heroine, Dido Twite, has finally returned to England after years away in “furrin parts overseas” but instead of a calm steady progress from the south coast to London, her place of birth, we find her hurtling in a death-defying dash — in the dark — on a mission of the greatest urgency. When the carriage-and-pair she and her fellow passenger, Captain Owen Hughes, are travelling in is stranded in the middle of nowhere after an accident, she is precipitated into an adventure involving conspiracies, inheritances, smuggling, witchery and, of course, danger.

Naturally this is almost everything that one expects to find in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, but we also hope we’ll encounter friendship, loyalty, bravery, honesty and resourcefulness, especially when we know that Dido is involved. She’ll need all those virtues in this further instalment of the alternate history series in which the Hanoverian monarchs are the pretenders to the British throne rather than the Stuarts.

In addition, for Aiken fans there’s the draw of knowing that much of this story is set in a corner of the world Joan knew very well — part of the South Downs now in West Sussex, on the road running northeast from Chichester towards the historic town of Petworth. Not only can we feel the genuine sense of place that comes with a novel set in real locations but also the emotional connections the author may have had for here — albeit with frequent dark shadows obscuring our view.

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Breaching the fourth wall

High Street, Oxford in the mid-20th century

Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop
Heron Books Library of Crime 1981 (1946)

Imagine a locked-room mystery in which everybody seems to have a cast-iron alibi and access to the murder victim appears impossible. Now imagine a scenario with the fourth wall torn away, or at least the veil between the actors on the stage and the theatre audience being occasionally parted. That is the premise of this novel, an intermittently metafictional take on the murder of a middle-aged woman. But where is the body, and where’s the evidence of any violence having taken place?

The Moving Toyshop has garnered much praise from those who ought to know about classic whodunits but it’s still disconcerting for a relative newcomer like myself to find characters imagining titles for the book they’re appearing in and referring to the book’s author by name. Bearing in mind the title (taken from Pope’s parody The Rape of the Lock) we have always to be aware that the author is trifling with us.

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Infernal visions

Ruins of gatehouse and keep of inner ward, Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Jeannette Ng: Under the Pendulum Sun
Angry Robot Books 2017

“Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone’s eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters.”
— from the abstract to J M S Tompkins, ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ Brontë Society Transactions Volume 14, 1961, Issue 1

I very much wanted to like this novel. Described as a ‘gothic fantasy with a theological twist’ Under a Pendulum Sun paraded a magnificent range of tropes and themes for our enjoyment, all centred around that staple Gothick cliché, the mysterious castle. In the 1840s Catherine Helstone travels from her native Yorkshire into the North Sea, en route to the realm that her missionary brother, Laon, has chosen to proselytise. This realm is called Arcadia, also known as the land of the Fae, what we now call fairies. But forget the little people with gauze-like wings from nursery tales, these are more altogether more mysterious, even sinister: and do they even have souls to save?

Jeanette Ng has, uniquely it seems, wedded together two unconnected themes, fairyland and theology, to produce a hybrid that’s pregnant with possibilities. She’s added into the mix the age-old British imperialist dream which in the 19th century sailed under the flags of free trade and converting heathens; she’s then buttressed her narrative with faux extracts from 19th-century texts each prefacing a chapter. So far so intriguing. But then the more we hear of Catherine, the narrator of the story, her secretive brother, a companion Ariel Davenport, castle servants Benjamin Goodfellow and the housekeeper known as the Salamander, plus a rarely glimpsed woman in black, the more mysteries the plot reveals. That’s all before we come to Mab, the Queen of the Fae, and her subjects.

I had high hopes for this unconventional fairytale set in a land with its own out-of-kilter cosmology (the sun really does swing from a Pendulum, and the moon, well, let’s just say it’s unexpected). That I wasn’t entirely won over is not because of the multiplicity of themes — which in fact was what most entertained me and kept me going — but because of other crucially important aspects of successful novel writing. Before I come to those negatives I want to apologise for the longer-than-usual digressions which now follow.

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Light on a crime

Postcard of former lighthouse, Delfzijl, Holland: built 1888, set on fire May 1940 by Dutch troops, rebuilt 1949, then demolished (1981) for a harbour extension

Georges Simenon: Maigret in Holland
Un Crime en Hollande (1931) translated (1940) by Geoffrey Sainsbury
Harvest / Harcourt Brace 1994

A tale that features the beam from a lighthouse, a young woman who eventually marries a lightbulb salesman and Jules Maigret, a police inspector who is expected to throw light on crimes, is — paradoxically — full of shadows and dark corners. Knowing a little about the Chief Inspector’s reputation we can expect him to deliver the goods in his steady methodical way, but the investigation will be hampered, first by his not being able to speak Dutch, and secondly by a small cast of characters who as expected have their own secrets to hide from him and from the close community they all live in.

Maigret travels to the northern end of Holland to assist a French criminology lecturer, Professor Jean Duclos, who has been caught up with the murder of a teacher in the Dutch port of Delfzijl. Duclos was found in possession of the revolver that killed Conrad Popinga, but there soon emerges a houseful of suspects and bystanders who could have had a motive for murder. And one common denominator among these motives turns out to be unrequited love.

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A little piece of Middle Earth

Looking towards Buckland Hill from the Black Mountains, with the Brecon Beacons beyond

Seamus Hamill-Keays
‘Tolkien and Buckland: An Analysis of the Evidence’
Brycheiniog: Cyfnodolyn Cymdeithas Brycheiniog /
The Journal of the Brecknock Society XLIX 2018

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote that The Shire of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” — that is, around 1897 — and “based on rural England and not on any other country in the world.” And yet, in South Powys, Wales, there’s a persistent local tradition that Ronald based the easternmost outpost of Middle Earth’s Shire in the Vale of Usk, in particular between Brecon and Abergavenny. Buckland in LOTR was suggested to be based on Buckland near Bwlch, and Frodo’s house at Crickhollow was presumed to be inspired by Crickhowell.

In addition, Tolkien is reputed to have spent time at nearby Talybont in the early forties while putting LOTR together. When I examined the evidence, such as it was, I concluded that “if the Buckland and Crickhollow of The Lord of the Rings really were inspired by the Buckland and Crickhowell of the Usk valley then [the visit] happened before the forties,” when the trilogy was complete. But I had no real inkling when exactly that could be.¹

“The closest [Tolkien] admits to first-hand contact with everyday Welsh is on coal-trucks marked with placenames, railway station signs, a house inscription declaring it was adeiladwyd 1887 (‘built 1887’), all presumably from one or more holiday trips to places far to the west,” I wrote. “That Tolkien visited Wales at some stage seemed undeniable to me; but when?” A recent article by Seamus Hamill-Keays, kindly brought to my attention by the author, plausibly suggests the answer, buttressing his hypothesis with a wealth of supporting material.

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Hell hath no fury

Rural uplands somewhere in Mid Wales

Jan Newton: Remember No More
Honno Press 2017

Detective Sergeant Julie Kite has upped sticks from Manchester to rural Mid Wales, her transfer determined by her husband Adam accepting a post in a local school, teaching history. Not unexpectedly, she’s already conflicted about the prospect, not least because Adam has strayed down the path of dalliance in the recent past.

And on her first day in her new job she finds she’s landed slap bang in the middle of a murder investigation.

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All at sea

Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)

This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.

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