Hurtling along, armed with a map, Eirlys Hunter

Soup and Bread
Nōnen Títi
Nōnen Títi, $25.00,
ISBN 9780994107732

The Pirates and the Nightmaker
James Norcliffe
Longacre, $20.00,
ISBN 9781775537694

The Volume of Possible Endings: A Tale of Fontania
Barbara Else
Gecko Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781927271377

Two of these titles are fantasies with large dollops of magic, yet I happily suspended disbelief and became immersed in their worlds. The third is supposedly set in the here and now, but instead of getting lost in it I kept noticing inconsistencies – it just wasn’t credible. Believability is crucial to fiction, and it can’t be achieved unless a novel’s characters are operating in a particular and sustained world.  It doesn’t matter how unfamiliar the setting is – 12th-century Laotian temple, Antarctic scientist’s lab, a dragon’s lair – there has to be enough plausible detail to allow the reader to feel secure that the writer knows what they’re talking about. The writer may well have only visited the location in their imagination, but that’s all that should be necessary to bring the place to life. The wardrobe, those furs, that lamppost – of course we’ll believe in Narnia. The more specific a place, the more real it will seem, and the more believable the story.

In Soup and Bread, 12 year-old Vonnie is in Year Five, but wears bathers, eats sweets and tatties, and her school is tightly governed by a board. It’s possible that Nōnen Títi (say it quickly) knows nothing about the vocabulary of childhood, but it’s more likely that she intends some kind of universality by the vagueness of place in this self-published novel.  The problems this causes the reader are compounded by a vagueness of purpose, as Títi is equally unwilling to limit her subject matter. The novel covers bullying, eating disorders (both over- and under-), diabetes, brain damage, racism and suicide. Bullying, which is entirely face-to-face (there’s no social media in the world of this novel), is perhaps the central issue. It is apparently relentless in every school any of the characters has ever attended, and the only adult response is denial in a way that’s hard to credit.

Food problems come a close second to bullying, and provide the title. Vonnie goes on hunger strike for decent meals, which is understandable as her traditionally-roled mother is even defeated by packet pancake mix. Alas, Títi doesn’t allow Vonnie to learn to cook.  In fact, almost no agency is given to any child in this book, and adults are allowed to argue and explain through large chunks of dialogue. To create a credible children’s novel out of this material, Títi would have to be aware of her readers’ expectations of fiction.

James Norcliffe’s and Barbara Else’s books have more in common than genre and fully-imagined worlds. They are both the third book in a series, and all four previous books have won, or been shortlisted for, every award and accolade conferred on children’s books in New Zealand. They’ve also been widely published – and acclaimed – overseas. Norcliffe and Else both know how to tell a compelling story for children.

Norcliffe’s The Pirates and the Nightmaker is the prequel to The Loblolly Boy and The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer. In it, we discover how the chain of Loblolly Boys began. The year is 1740 and the place is the Spanish Main, where all the ships that weren’t out-and-out pirates were privateers; gold was the object and fighting the way of life. Every detail of Norcliffe’s story is convincing, though his obviously extensive research never draws attention to itself.

A loblolly boy was the surgeon’s dogsbody on an 18th-century sailing ship. The story opens with our loblolly boy cast adrift in a jolly boat with some of his crew, after an encounter with pirates. The starving men eye him hungrily, but before they can kill him, the mysterious Mr Wicker makes him invisible and gives him wings. Mr Wicker is no benefactor, however. He needs an accomplice who is invisible and can fly to help him recover a magical astrolabe which will give him a terrible power. Flying and invisibility may have rescued the Loblolly Boy but they come at a high price; he can’t eat or drink, and he’s unable to communicate with – almost – anyone, so he’s lonely. Soon the Loblolly Boy is desperate to return to his old self, but that means he has to help Mr Wicker fulfil his evil quest.

An historical novel for children with a first-person narrator makes particular demands on the writer, but Norcliffe’s prose is exemplary.  His language and point-of-view never seem anachronistic, the story rollicks along, and an impatient 10 or 11 year-old would not be unduly challenged by the vocabulary. Norcliffe cares about language and has given the Loblolly Boy a clear and lyrical voice: “Dr Hatch’s frightening tales of ghost ships came unbidden as I made out the masts with their tattered filaments of sails billowing impossibly in a non-existent wind.”

Norcliffe’s recent novel, The Enchanted Flute, was a memorable story let down by a deus ex machina ending. Not so The Pirates and the Nightmaker. In order to regain human shape, the Loblolly Boy discovers he must find another person who cannot only see him, but hates their lives enough to exchange with him; from now on there will always be a loblolly boy. The wonderful and unexpected ending provides an imaginative answer to how one of our great historical figures came to be the man he was.

The sense of place in both Else’s and Norcliffe’s books is enhanced by a map. The Pirates and the Nightmaker includes not only a map of the Spanish Main, but also an image of a sailing ship with forecastle, mizzen-mast and other parts labelled, so we can see, in our mind’s eye, exactly where the Loblolly Boy is.  Else’s 12-year-old heroine Dorrity lives in Owl Town, which is on the fringes of Fontania. The map on the inside covers of The Volume of Possible Endings shows the fountain where she hid, the bridge to Fribbleton, the ditch separating Owl Town from the Beastly Dark – all of Dorrity’s world.

Else’s story is, like the previous books in the Fontania series, set in a time that has never existed, but doesn’t feel alien. This is a version of steam punk, where contemporary technology is reimagined in a pre-electric world. The Volume of Possible Endings refers not to ways that Else’s series will end, but to what will happen to Dorrity, who finds a magic book in which five possible endings appear. It’s a clever conceit because, although Dorrity is practical and smart, she’s not by nature a rebel; it’s the threat to her beloved big brothers implied in some of the endings that motivates her to brave the Beastly Dark. This book is just as funny as its predecessors, and its characters are just as bizarre and delightful, but I found it harder to follow. This could be because the protagonists of the previous books in the series were on a journey, and the linear journey-shape provided the books with a simpler narrative structure. Or it could be because so much happens that my aged brain couldn’t keep up. The novel is divided into five parts and 57 short chapters in which Dorrity befriends a mechanical boy who gradually becomes real; is kidnapped by motor-cycling anarchists; sees people turned into animals and animals into people; is captured by the monstrous Count Bale; is reluctantly crowned queen; takes Mr Coop’s barrel submarine upriver with King Jasper and a bear; and encounters the power of public relations as well as good and bad magic.

I had unanswered questions when I finished this book, but on rereading I discovered that most of the answers were there to be found, I’d just been swept past them by the speed and number of events. This is not necessarily a problem; most children would prefer their fiction to hurtle rather than dawdle, and any book that reveals more on rereading is to be applauded. But I still don’t understand why Dorrity was the only child in Owl Town.

This novel could be enjoyed without reading the previous Fontania books, but because its pace is so frenetic, it will probably be more easily followed by readers already familiar with the ways of the Fontanian world. I was relieved that Dorrity wasn’t prepared to accept Metalboy’s fate at the end: “Metalboy’s tale might have various possible endings too. She’d ruddy well work on it.” Could this be a teaser for the fourth, and last, book in the series to be published later this year? I hope so.

Eirlys Hunter writes for both children and adults. She teaches Writing for Children at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature and Review
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