20 November 2012

Post Facto: Keys to another world

My column for the Sunday Guardian this fortnight.

A large part of my adult life has been spent inside books. There are books I read too fast because I want to know what happens, and so must read a second time to savour all I missed. There are books I hate from page one, but read all the way through, sometimes because it's work (one cannot review half a book) and sometimes just out of masochism. There are books abandoned midway, which look at me accusingly as they sink to the bottom of a pile. There are books I refer to for facts magisterially marshalled, and books I turn to for analytical clarity. The best books are ways to enter the world afresh.

But there are times when what you want is not to find a different route into the world, but to leave it behind entirely. Fantasy and science fiction are increasingly popular genres in writing for adults. But the books of my childhood provide a dual escape: a temporary reprieve from the adult world, and in the case of three of my most favourite children's books — an entry into a parallel universe.

In the first of these, that parallel universe is an entirely domestic one, imagined to exist under the floorboards. Mary Norton's fertile imagination created a world of little people — six-inch-high creatures who looked and behaved like minature versions of ourselves, but lived by 'borrowing' from us all the little things that disappear so mysteriously from every home: "Safety pins, for instance... And all the other things we keep on buying. Again and again and again. Like pencils and matchboxes and sealing wax and hairpins and drawing pins and thimbles..." The Borrowers, as Norton named them, first appeared in print in 1952, and were such a success that she continued to create new adventures for her chosen fictional family — Homily, Pod and their daughter Arietty — for the next 30 years.

The books of my childhood provide a dual escape: a temporary reprieve from the adult world, and in the case of three of my most favourite children’s books – an entry into a parallel universe
Much of the delight of the Borrowers' universe is in seeing familiar household things in a new light: a cogwheel becomes a fireplace, a wristwatch is a clock, a matchbox a chest of drawers, a single chess-piece provides both a pedestal for a dining table and a knight's 'bust', which "lent that air to the room which only statuary can give." The other pleasure of this world is to experience, vicariously through the Borrowers, a life which involves precision and danger in equal measure, a world in which innovation is not a luxury but a need, and in which the everyday act of survival has the thrill of constant adventure.

The thrill is also enhanced by juxtaposition: the Borrowers, by their very nature, live in houses where no new things happen, where the humans live to a routine. "Routine is their safeguard," says old Mrs. May, who first tells Kate about them. "They must know which rooms are to be used and when. They do not stay in houses where there are careless people, or unruly children, or certain household pets."

The key to another kind of parallel universe is magic. Of all the many stories about magical creatures and magical worlds that I have ever read, I think E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle is the most wondrous. The children in it move constantly in and out of a magic universe — but not in the predictable manner of, say, Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree, in which a trip to the Enchanted Forest guarantees access to a magical world, but the everyday, regulated life of the nursery remains unaffected. In Nesbit's 1907 book, magic turns the everyday world topsy-turvy in a way that can be both frightening and marvelous: a girl disappears, statues talk, a whole secret world comes to life at night where there is nothing but lifeless stone in the day. Nesbit credits the power of the imagination in some far deeper way than most books — magic itself, she suggests, is a matter of belief. If you believe a ring will make you invisible, it will. If you believe it'll make things come to life, it will. But if you say it won't, it won't.

The last book — Tom's Midnight Garden — uses a third route to enter an alternative world: time. Philippa Pearce's 1958 tale -- of a boy stuck alone at an aunt and uncle's place for the summer — uses an old grandfather clock as the bridge between the regular world and a past one. When the clock strikes thirteen, late every night, Tom finds he can open an old rusty door and go into a garden that seems not to be there during the day. And there, in that world of the midnight garden, he forges a bond with a girl named Hattie — a bond that feels stronger than almost anything in the world of the day. But Pearce is not really interested in old-style magic. At the end of the book, she gives us an explanation that hovers on the edges of the psychological. But her vision of the garden — a place so intensely remembered that it manages to communicate to someone else — remains a haunting ode to the power of memory and dreams.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.


icyHighs said...

"There are books abandoned midway, which look at me accusingly as they sink to the bottom of a pile."

And with good reason, too! I can never stop reading a book mid-way, no matter how bad. Great post. Completely agree about Nesbit v. Blyton. Much as I loved Blyton growing up, Nesbit I find easier to re-read in adulthood, perhaps because its less sugary-sweet.

Trisha Gupta said...

Haha, yes, with good reason. Just a bad case of too many books...

But thanks, and yes, you're probably right about Blyton's sugariness, though there's also just the formulaic-ness -- of the magical stories, at least. I think I am happier to re-read her mysteries and most of all, her school stories. Would be fun to think
about why that is, in more detail.

icyHighs said...

True. They mysteries would probably still appeal, but the fantasy stuff - just one wishing chair too many, I think!