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.
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 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 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.|