Children's Literature

24th January 1997 at 00:00
THE FIVE SISTERS By Margaret Mahy Illustrated by Patricia MacCarthy Hamish Hamilton Pounds 9.99

An underlying delight in the world as an astonishing place, sometimes dangerous, always changing, runs through Margaret Mahy's work. For her, the world is held together by a network of interconnected stories which can be "read" in as many ways as there are points of view.

In her new tale whose distinctive voices, wry humour, and philosophic bent are reminiscent of Russell Hoban's La Corona and the Tin Frog, she explores these ideas in a rich and layered story in which animate and apparently inanimate interact in ways which transform and connect them all.

From the poetic opening with its "mysterious voices", we know we are in a world where anything can happen.

"I'm full of storms, stories, and secrets. Write on me. Draw on me. Set them all free," whispers the white paper which Sally's Nana folds, cuts and turns into a row of five hand-linked paper dolls - the first drawn as a "wild, adventurous girl with sticking-out ears" called Alpha.

Before Nana can complete the other dolls, Alpha's yen for adventure sets the sisters on an extraordinary circular journey during which they are saved from successive disasters by someone who draws the next sister and in so doing, finds their true self.

Just as the dolls are revealed as adventurer, storyteller, and lovers of beauty and tears, knowledge, and jokes, so their human makers are magically changed and confirmed as an artist, song-writer, scientist, and lover of laughter.

Throughout, the sisters, buffeted by the elements, in danger from beasts - natural, man-made, and magical - set to work as a bookmark for years, search for a mysterious island on the edge of the sea where momentarily they will be free to find and make their own individual stories.

Science (on one level, this is a tale about covalent bonding), story and song all hold hands in this rare inventive fantasy which offers readers, through the poetic metaphor of the dolls, an unforgettably imaginative structure of the world.

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