Walker Books, $17.99,
The Ghosts of Iron Bottom Sound
The Sheep on the Fourth Floor
Shadow of the Boyd
As an adult it’s sometimes hard to recall exactly why you connected deeply with certain childhood books and not with others. It’s even harder to be sure what will turn a modern child into what Maria Tatar, reclaiming the term from Nabokov, calls an “enchanted hunter” who loves to travel through a narrative deeply absorbed.
Just after completing this clutch of novels, I picked up a book from Oxford University Press: The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman (2010). Lukeman, an author himself, has been an editor with highly respected companies like William Morrow, and now runs a literary agency. He doesn’t talk about plot and doesn’t worry about synposes or pitches. The writing itself should do the job, ensuring that a publisher or agent will read beyond the first five pages of a manuscript: “by scrutinizing a few pages closely enough – particularly the first few – you can make a determination for the whole.”
Lukeman talks about the principles of good writing: how the writing sounds and flows, style, dialogue, showing versus telling, characterisation, narrative. He says some hard truths that people who sit in the editor’s chair at a publishing company or literary agency try to say more gently if they have the time to say anything at all beyond a standard rejection. According to Lukeman, 99 per cent of today’s unsolicited manuscripts go into the rejection pile and most of those are not read beyond the first five pages. This is something very few in the industry would want to say outside their own offices. But why read on past the point where you know a manuscript cannot sell?
I began wondering how each of these junior novels encourages today’s young reader to go past the opening section or two. The internet, computer games, DVDs, iPods offer entertainment that children find intensely interesting. What does the writer put into those crucial early scenes that will grip a young imagination and keep that reader away from those other pleasures for up to 200 pages? Even more importantly, do these four books cast such a spell that a young reader will pick up another novel fairly quickly?
Tussock is on top of the pile. Elizabeth Pulford is a prolific, very well-regarded author for children and adults. I expected quality, and it is here. In the opening pages, the reader is introduced to Kate, the protagonist, and her younger sister Madeline. Their father is mentioned with subdued and contained emotion. Evening is falling. Madeline is gathering stones to make a Stone Man, while Kate wants to reach a hut higher up the hill so she can light a lamp.
The lake, the wind, images of the light and sky, are somehow tied into the solidity but fragility of the incomplete Stone Man. There is a tug in Kate’s heart between the needs of her mother and what she needs herself, and we learn that the small aircraft carrying her father has gone missing. Both lamp and Stone Man are talismans to help bring him home.
There is a flash of backstory – a bunch of keys that Dad gave Kate the day he handed the hut over to her. None of them fit the keyhole. It’s a funny yet poignant memory that is absolutely right in showing the special bond between this particular parent and this particular child. The first chapter ends with the introduction of another, apparently fey, figure who turns out to be a boy with very different, equally serious, problems with his father. The setting, characterisation and situation are highlighted by evocative images and clean delicate style. This is a solid story. After its early grip it doesn’t let up and continues to satisfy to the last page.
The Ghosts of Iron Bottom Sound is a first novel by South Islander Sandy Nelson. A war story with ghosts might not seem particularly appealing but the opening paragraph is irresistible. In the first pages, Paddy is in a school library with a mysterious Book, images of many ghosts and, outside the window, a real world of autumn foliage.
Continuing hints of ghostly warships and bone-weary sailors keep sliding in while Paddy meets his schoolmates and crosses the road to get home with his nose still in the Book. Then comes a description of a map of Guadalcanal, and we meet his worried mother who briefly mentions his grandfather. The protagonist’s fear and curiosity quiver on the page.
This is cleverly managed character-driven stuff. The story that develops beyond the first five pages more than lives up to the promise. History is made vivid and, more to the point, significant to today’s children. It turns out to be an anti-war story with two deftly handled story lines, Paddy’s and his grandfather’s, present and past. Maps and photographs add to the narrative and help Paddy piece the mystery together. I think that when children close this book their fingers will be itching for another from this writer and possibly more ghost and war stories.
The Sheep on the Fourth Floor is the third novel from Leonie Thorpe. A lone sheep arrives at a hospital in a ute and is led inside by a laboratory technician. I was struck right away by the authentic Kiwi dialogue in these first two pages, and young readers would enjoy it too.
Then we meet the protagonist Anna at home. At first the parents seem rather stock figures, her mother trying to make Anna take riding lessons, the father fussy about breakfast. I wanted an editor, please: “a grinning dark-haired baby surrounded by one or more of her nana’s cats”. But the intended readership will be intrigued by the sheep’s situation, amused by the familiar everyday tension in the
human characters, and should happily read on.
After the slightly tentative start the narrative and characterisation get better and better. It is sophisticated material that looks at ethical situations from petty thievery to vivisection. There is some excellent humour and a range of marvellously drawn characters, especially bogan Duggie and the unusually sympathetic Constable Porter. The sheep becomes very appealing, a character any reader of any age could easily relate to.
Last of the clutch is Shadow of the Boyd by Diana Menefy, based on the true story of the 1809 clash of Maori and British culture that led to the massacre of almost all the crew and passengers of the Boyd. I’m cautious about historical fiction when it’s based on real life events and people. Too often the writer is hitched up in the facts, fails to create memorable characters and doesn’t develop a multi-layered narrative.
On page one of this novel it is 1810, and “They are all dead. All the crew are dead except for me.” Thomas, an apprentice sailor on his way back to England on the City of Edinburgh, is having trouble trying to write down the story of the massacre. After the brilliant opening two sentences, we learn that Thomas is safe and about to sail home.
He begins writing down his own story a second time, signified by a paragraph of bold font: “My name is …”. The story continues in normal font, and we’re back in 1809. Thomas looks around the Boyd on his first day then drifts off to sleep in his hammock. The next section, still in 1809, describes some soldiers coming on board. It’s a slow start that doesn’t flesh out the character of Thomas. There is well-researched historical detail though very little action.
Further into the novel, the layout becomes confusing. Sometimes the 1809 sections are indicated by an opening line or two in bold, but often they are not. I’m not sure that young readers will follow the transitions back and forth. However, there are good action scenes that I found gritty and tactile. Many of the intended age group will think so too.
Some readers of any age want mystery and enchantment. Some want more prosaic prose. Among this quartet of novels there is plenty to turn young people into Tatar’s enchanted hunters keen to explore fresh narratives.
Barbara Else is a Wellington writer for adults and children.