From pathos to bathos

Oakleaf window, Tyntesfield, Bristol

Ransom Riggs:
Tales of the Peculiar
Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
Penguin 2017 (2016)

I really wanted to like this: a handsome book to look at and a pleasure to hold and handle, with extremely classy wood engravings by Andrew Davidson and a series of short stories of ‘peculiar’ people told purportedly in fairytale fashion. I do love convincing fakery in a novel, the kind that allows one to fully suspend one’s disbelief and immerse oneself in an alternative world where unnatural things happen and peculiar people exist.

However, with this instalment of Ransom Riggs’ popular series I found that the things which irritated me about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were still present, but amplified, and that unfortunately led to me feeling let down and profoundly disappointed as I waded through the eleven pieces and a foreword.

But first, the Prologue, in which I enumerate the many facets which predisposed me to find this tome attractive.

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Emotional landscapes

Nina Bawden: Squib
Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)

‘Little children understand magic,’ her mother had said once. ‘It’s a gift you lose as you grow older.’

Squib is a marvellous tale about how children of a certain age look to fairytales to help them make sense of the world. In a little waif which they call Squib Kate sees either a changeling or the ghost of her younger brother swept out to sea years before; siblings Sammy and Prue want Squib as an otherworldly playmate but are worried that he’s guarded by a witch in a wood; Prue and Sammy’s brother Robin wants to pursue ‘useless’ subjects like Latin and classical Greek at school but sees himself as a reluctant hero when wrongs need to be righted and Squib needs rescuing.

And the adults, have they truly lost the gift of understanding magic? Kate’s mother — an illustrator of children’s books — believes that ‘in real life there aren’t any right true happy endings. You have to get used to things as they are.’ Meanwhile, Robin’s mother was once a competitive swimmer but thinks she will never have the need to demonstrate her skills in this department again. Is life so cruel then that dreams face being forever dashed?

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An unhappy ménage

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome
Introduction and notes by Pamela Knights
Wordsworth Classics 2004 (1911)

The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ.

Even this passage, full as it is with the exhilaration and joys of sledding in the snow, is full of the portent of tragedy: the night is hollow — it opens out below them like the abyss — the sound of the organ evokes both weddings and funeral services. The settlement of Starkfield, desolate both by name and by nature, has a secret in the form of Ethan Frome which a visitor, an engineer, seeks to penetrate. It is a sad tale, yet one with an unexpected ending.

Ethan, sometime in the late 19th century and somewhere in the mountains of Massachusetts, is cursed with a loveless and childless marriage and a failing timber business, any prospects of advancement and intellectual satisfaction denied to him due to having a semi-invalid hypochondriac partner to support.

When his wife’s cousin, Mattie, saved from destitution by coming to stay and help in the house, proves younger, more convivial and attractive compared to Zenobia, he can’t help but feel a lighter heart when Mattie is in his presence. But things come to a head in the dead of winter when Mattie is faced with banishment.

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Everyone dumbfounded

Agatha Christie:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Introduction by John Curran
HarperCollins 2013 (1920)

“It is always wise to suspect everybody until you can prove logically, and to your own satisfaction, that they are innocent.” — Hercule Poirot, Chapter 8

Styles Court, Essex, July 1917. Captain Hastings, invalided from the front, is given a month’s sick leave from his convalescent home. He is invited by an old friend John Cavendish to stay at a country house a few miles from the sea, not guessing that it will be more eventful than he anticipated: in less than a fortnight after Hastings’ arrival at Styles Court Cavendish’s mother is fatally poisoned by strychnine.

Thus begins Christie’s first published novel, introducing retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to the world and initiating what would be known as the ‘cosy’ mystery. As Dr John Curran explains in his introduction here is the stereotypical mystery, set in a country mansion or village and involving a cast of extended family members, friends and acquaintances, often ending with a gathering in a drawing room for the revelation of ‘who done it’.

As the brusque Evelyn Howard puts it at the very beginning, “Like a good story myself. Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in the last chapter. Everyone dumbfounded. Real crime–you’d know it at once!” As an arch metafictional device this is as good as it gets.

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Mirages and breakdowns

Western Asia, 1936 (Bartholomew Atlas)

Agatha Christie,
writing as Mary Westmacott:
Absent in the Spring
HarperCollins 2017 (1944)

A few days before, an old school friend of Joan Scudamore had wondered “what, if you had nothing to do but think about yourself for days and days, you might find out about yourself.” And now that Joan finds herself in just that position, stuck in limbo waiting for a train, she learns that all that she’d assumed about her life and her family may not have been as she imagined.

Will the mental crisis she experiences, and the reevaluation of relationships that she undergoes, represent a sea change in her attitudes — or will she return to old ways of thinking despite all she has gone through?

In this psychological novel the author portrays a woman whose assumptions are profoundly challenged by isolation — well, she’s not totally alone, but she is the only European — and alone with her thoughts she finds them taking very unexpected turns.

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Muddling through

Penelope Lively: Uninvited Ghosts
Illustrated by John Lawrence
Puffin 1986 (1984)

This delightful collection of eight short stories aimed at young readers is perfect for a quick diverting read by those of more mature years too. At between ten and twenty pages each in this edition they share humour and fantasy in equal measure in ways that remind me of writers like Joan Aiken and E Nesbit — which should be all the recommendation needed.

The plentiful line illustrations by John Lawrence, heading as well as littering each story, are simple yet effective; in a style reminiscent of Peter Firmin’s cartoons they succeed in conveying a typical child as protagonist confronted by abnormal situations; they perfectly complement the author’s narratives in which it’s touch and go whether all will turn out well or not.

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Verdopolis for ever

From Greenberg’s Glass Town

Isabel Greenberg: Glass Town
Jonathan Cape 2020

Before Charlotte wrote The Professor or Jane Eyre, and Emily Wuthering Heights, and Anne Agnes Grey the three Brontë girls and their brother Branwell were creator gods. The self-proclaimed Genii founded Glass Town, a place to populate with characters based on public figures of the day (such as the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon), literary ideals such as the Byronic hero, and social archetypes such as revolutionaries and blue-stockings.

Though Emily and Anne, fed up with their domineering brother Branwell and an acquiescent Charlotte broke away to create their own lands of Gondal and Gaaldine, the two older siblings continued with their country of Angria, while Charlotte continued with Angria stories when she became a teacher.

Isabel Greenberg has created her own version of the creation of Brontë juvenilia: in what she identifies as her historical fiction she has “embroidered, embellished and indulged in a great deal of supposing.” More than that, she has illustrated her fiction — full of “inaccuracy and anachronism and many flights of fancy” — with her own distinctive style, producing a delightful graphic novel in which Charlotte discourses with the imaginary Charles Wellesley as they survey the birth, development and fate of this unique paracosm.

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