A runcible recovery

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Black Water, By Rachel Anderson, Oxford Pounds 9.99. 0 19 271728 6

It is hard to guess what age group the author had in mind for this book; it is even harder to guess to whom it might actually appeal -for many modern youngsters will find it contains too little action and too much thinking; what is hardest of all to explain, therefore, is what makes Black Water such a compelling read.

The central character is a young boy living in Victorian England. His mother named him "Albert" after the Prince Consort, but he prefers to be known by his second name, "Edward". He is bright and gifted - painting delicate water-colours of flowers to supplement the modest income earned by his widowed mother as a singing teacher. But Edward is afflicted with the feared and misunderstood condition of epilepsy.

Black Water is an odyssey of self-discovery in which this sensitive, troubled child begins to come to terms with his illness as a result of a chance encounter with a famous fellow-epileptic - himself a painter and another "Edward" - that "Bosh-producing Luminary", Mr Edward Lear!

The bearded, bespectacled eccentric, who recorded the romance of the Owl and the Pussycat and the sorrows of the Dong with the Luminous Nose, doesn't make his runcible entrance until 15 pages from the end of the book by which time the younger Edward's story is almost at an end - or, rather, at a beginning.

Since we are not told how old Edward is at the time of relating his life, Rachel Anderson's use of a mature first-person narrative voice is often difficult to believe - especially when Edward uses words and idioms which it is impossible to imagine any child using, even one born in Victoria's reign: "I descended immediately into the deep dark vortex of death, and centuries later crawled back up on the far side of life".

What is extremely well done is the evocation of an age on the brink of change: the brave new world of medical and scientific discoveries co-existing with the old superstitious shadow-realm of the curious freak-show. But what makes you turn the pages is the poignant depiction of the young boy's confused attempts at understanding his "falling sickness" and the terrifying way in which others view his malady. Then, after many nonsensical attempts at curing Edward's epilepsy - ignorant, brutal and humiliating - comes a different kind of nonsense and a radiant transfiguration as he discovers how pleasant it is to know Mr Lear.

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