Approaching old age;Children's books

26th June 1998 at 01:00
ESCAPE FROM SHANGRI-LA. By Michael Morpurgo. Heinemann pound;12.99

MR APE. By Dick King-Smith. Doubleday pound;9.99

The opening chapters of Michael Morpurgo's fine new novel have an intense and claustrophobically domestic atmosphere. They depict the manner in which a child (in this case, Cessie, the 11-year-old narrator) can be high-mindedly judgmental about adults, particularly her parents. Cessie cannot understand why her father is so negative towards Popsicle, the old man who invites himself into the house, announcing that he is Cessie's grandfather.

To begin with, the family hopes that Popsicle's loss of memory stems from a knock on the head, but it gradually becomes clear that he suffers from black depression and that the failure of his memory is deep-seated. One of the few things he can remember are Beatles songs, and he teaches Cessie, who is learning the violin, to accompany him on "Nowhere Man".

A passing reference to "a six-pages-a-minute horror book" made me reflect on the degree to which Morpurgo feels able to take a risk with the reader's engagement. (If this had been a first novel, I wonder how many editors would have been pressing the author to telescope the opening scenes?) It's worth the risk; by the time the "adventure" swings in, the reader is beginning to see that there are several sides to Popsicle's relationship with his son, Cessie's father.

In a deeply thoughtful novel about old age, Alzheimer-type forgetfulness and family secrets, Morpurgo shows how the most powerful effects in fiction can be obtained obliquely. When a gang of bullies destroys Popsicle's pride and joy - a model boat - the interlude is all the more disturbing for not involving physical violence. The reader only witnesses the aftermath as Popsicle wades out to pick up the pieces.

Mr Ape is an entertainment based on the triumphalist approach to ageing as summed up in Jenny Joseph's poem "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple". Ape is a toff rattling around in Penny Royal, his empty mansion. His wife and children have left home, and now he can do what his wife always forebade. Soon every room is filled with seething and multiplying animal life.

King-Smith's paragraphs are so perfectly modulated for reading aloud that this new title is certain to be a success. Jokes based on animal excreta rub shoulders with snippets of pet care information. Canary perches, we are told, should never be less than a centimetre in width.

There is also a moral undercurrent. The other main characters - a Gypsy father and son - allow King-Smith to make gentle points about prejudice and presumption. They also pave the way for a conclusion in which Ape opts for human companionship rather than reclusive eccentricity surrounded by a breeding bedlam of beasts.

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