On dangerous ground
Magic is tricky stuff. In these days of disbelief, its old power has diminished to a conjuring act which demands concentrated skill if it is to achieve credibility. A mere flourishing of linked rings and paper roses is not enough.
It's the same with magical realism, that most perilously balanced of genres. By its very nature, the basic premise is as preposterous as that of grand opera, which only transcends its impossibility on rare occasions through a combination of genius, adrenalin and luck, and yet this dangerous world is one in which children's writers flourish.
Pauline Fisk, in Tyger Pool sustains an intensity of emotional pitch that defies disbelief. The story is a retrospective, elegiac account of how Rose, devastated by her mother's death, sees her father become helplessly involved with Aunt Cat who is the embodiment of evil. This apparently inoffensive woman arrives with a moulting cage-bird called Pretty Polly which metamorphoses into something so frightful that I, for one, will never look a parrot in the eye again. The book sparkles with odd, engaging characters, and yet the sustaining texture is one of simmering passion which makes all things possible.
The cataclysmic ending moves unnervingly fast and with a trace of confusion, but there is little doubt that a child reader, entranced by the whole thing, will go along with it. Although much of the action is frightening, there is a lot of enjoyable fun - and the birth of a baby before Rose's startled eyes is handled with immense aplomb and sensitivity. For all the underlying sadness of this book, it has a thread of psychological truth which makes it memorable.
The Candle Man by Catherine Fisher, makes an equally good job of weaving a credible fantasy. The approach here is brisk and matter-of-fact, the emotional tessitura confidently established at a low key. From the breakdown of the school bus in the very first paragraph, we are with Conor in the dangerous, flood-threatened land bordered by the Severn, that most capricious and treacherous of rivers. The mythology is deftly handled, establishing the river-spirit by her Welsh name of Hafren, the same rapacious drowned princess whom the Romans called Sabrina, and who still demands a sacrifice of three lives a year if she is to spare the land from her ceaseless raiding.
Conor's mother is the licensee of the Sea Wall Inn, a single parent of triumphant independence who adroitly disentangles herself from the lustings of Evan, the cellarman. "Don't you know by now I can look out for myself?" she says to her worried son at the end of the book. And Conor is free at last, having seen off Hafren, to run "hard down the splashing track, wanting to shout and jump and yell in the blustering wind". Throughout the book, there is a poet's economy and forcefulness in the use of words which makes both feeling and event so strong that they cannot be disbelieved.
Snowbird Winter, by Sue Welford, is a Fenland story which evokes the haunted quality of that open landscape very beautifully. The feeling for bird-life is evident and the descriptions are evocative, but the sureness of touch fails when it comes to the supernatural events. These centre round the finding of a large, shiny space-egg with runic lettering which the heroine's younger brother has seen with unlikely accuracy in his dreams, and which turns out to contain Shannah, the snow-bird-woman, marooned on earth by some slip-up of extra-terrestrial navigation.
Young readers may find all this easier to accept than I did, but there are infelicities in the writing, such as the constant description of a blushing boy as "going red", which jar. The narrative voice never transcends that of the oh-so-understanding mother, and this sets up an odd tension. One is left with a strong feeling that there is a good book in here somewhere, about a woman scared and fascinated by the landscape which imprisons her, but this isn't it. I hope Sue Welford will write it one day - for adults.