Children's Literature

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
MENNYMS ALONE, By Sylvia Waugh, Julia MacRae Books Pounds 9.99.

The saga of the Mennyms is approaching its climax. Mennyms Alone is the fourth in the series, and a fifth and final volume, Mennyms Alive, is promised for the autumn.

Perhaps the announcement of the closing title is meant to reassure young readers about this fourth episode in the sequence, which might have been brutally but accurately entitled, "Mennyms Dead".

When this popular and much-praised series started, the very idea of a dead Mennym would have seemed a contradiction in terms. The Mennyms are a family of life-size rag dolls. When their maker, Kate Penshaw, died, her spirit passed into them and gave them life. Born old or young as Kate created them, they have lived a secretive mock-human life for almost half a century in her old home.

Immune to the customary human fates of hunger, pain and (so it seemed) death, they have been menaced only by a gradually increasing risk of detection by the outside world. Steadily, from book to book, the threats have worsened. In Mennyms Alone their time is up at last.

In the third book, Mennyms Under Siege, death came to a Mennym for the first time, so proving that they were not after all immortal. In Mennyms Alone that fate extends to all but one of the rest.

This is the death book of the series. In the first half, old Sir Magnus has a premonition that Kate's spirit will be withdrawn on a certain day, and the Mennyms, like practical brave humans, put their affairs in order.

In the second half, their bodies, lifeless dolls again, are cared for by two human families. Only Soobie, the blue Mennym, stays alive, undiscovered in the attic. His condition is eerily akin to what we have recently learned of some people in persistent vegetative state - comatose, immobile, unable to communicate, but conscious and able to see and hear. Not until the last half page is there promise of a reawakening.

It sounds a wilfully morbid book for children. But Sylvia Waugh's readers will expect by now the immaculate narrative tact, the lightness of touch, the redeeming wit and comedy which can mediate the most frightening experiences in the lives of dolls and humans. They will not be disappointed. For children, the Mennyms' death becomes "an awfully big adventure", without being cheapened or falsified. older readers may find that the story touches gently but wisely on some of modern life's most stubborn fears and perplexities.

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