This was an extraordinary read: a real shapeshifter of a book. It began like a children’s story, full of the innocent fancies of an isolated little girl, but then morphed into an eerie fantasy full of symbolism and old magic. The most frustrating thing about the whole novel is that its final pages introduce a whole new potential canvas and then, with so many questions unanswered, and so much backstory unexplained, it simply finishes. I assumed that it must surely be the first part of a series but, so far, I haven’t found any mention of a planned sequel. And so I’ve been left feeling strangely short-changed because, for the most part, this is a genuinely gripping world and so much more could have been said.
Perhaps some of you are already familiar with Paul Kearney’s works. I wasn’t and I can’t even remember what made me buy this book, although I suspect the cover and the Oxford connection helped its appeal. We meet Anna Francis, an eleven-year-old girl who lives in shabby gentility with her father in Jericho in Oxford. It is 1929 and Anna and her father are refugees from Smyrna where, seven years earlier, they lost Anna’s mother and all the rest of their family. Blunted by his pain, Anna’s father has withdrawn into himself, less interested in his little daughter than in the dream of repatriation, and in the endless meetings he holds with others of the Greek expatriate community. Anna is taught at home – useless things, like French and algebra – and has no friends except her doll, Pie, with whom she shares all her secrets. She’s alone, but not exactly lonely, because there are always stories to cheer her up, whether those are E. Nesbit’s tales of the Psammead, or the tales her father used to tell her about Achilles and Agamemnon. And she explores.
And it’s while Anna is rambling in Port Meadow, late one night, that she sees something which will change her life. A group of tramps around a fire fall into a fight and a man is killed. The killer, a gaunt young man, sees Anna watching and, when she runs away, he follows her; though he doesn’t catch her. When she once again feels herself drawn to the woods, Anna stumbles across another fire, another group of people, this time an extended family of exotic travellers; and the young man is there again. At first I thought it was going to be a period tale of a young girl encountering romantic outsiders, and learning that she isn’t the only one who has come from a different place. But the tone shifts. One night, during a storm, Anna discovers this same young man hiding in the attic of her house, and what she sees makes her realise that there are darker, more dangerous things in the world than she ever thought possible. And soon, if she isn’t careful, they will be following her.
There’s something about Oxford: the fantastical otherness of the place, and its quaint old street names, its twisting lanes and soaring spires, make it perfect for fantastical stories. I wouldn’t say this is outright fantasy, though. It occupies the grey area on the brink. Certainly there are elements of the otherworldly, but Kearney makes them feel real, part of an ancient world that has managed to survive beneath the flimsy surface of our own. The inevitable comparison is His Dark Materials, though even that is more of a fantasy than Kearney’s novel (at least in the first part). And of course the author is well aware of Oxford’s distinguished fantasy past. It’s no accident that two well-known figures make cameos here: Jack, a don from Magdalen more formally known as Professor Lewis (anyone?) and his drinking buddy, Ronald, whom Jack calls ‘Tollers’ (take a guess). Their works, though, have a firmer presence than they do: Kearney’s story has hints both of Narnia and Middle Earth.
It’s very hard to explain what I liked about this book, but I did like it. I enjoyed the sense of elemental, old magic bound by the sacred sites and ridgeways of old England, and I enjoyed the restrained sense of fantasy. But, as I said earlier, Kearney has come up with such a tantalising world that I want to know more about it. The book is very slow-paced and, by the time the action starts happening, we’re virtually at the end. Everything rises to a crescendo, a burgeoning sense of possibility… and then ends. Basta. And I’ve been left burning with questions. What happens next? How will these new alliances work out? What is the great rivalry really all about? And exactly what is so significant about Anna’s past? Surely there has to be a sequel. I’ve had to compromise on this novel. As a book kicking off a series, it is worth four stars; but if this is it – if it’s meant to work as a standalone novel – then it only deserves three at best, because the pacing is wrong and the ending isn’t correctly balanced. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
This is one to savour on the long dark nights before the spring comes. Partly a moving tale of a refugee’s struggle to fit in, partly a paean to the lost myths of England, it has whetted my interest in Kearney as a writer (especially as I see he’s written an alternate-universe version of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand). If you haven’t come across him before, give this a go. You might find Anna’s narratorial voice rather childish to begin with, but stick with it. This is a chilling story that could just work its way into your bones. And then join me in demanding more!