Leaps of the imagination

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Gaye Hicyilmaz explores fiction for young readers about love, loss and growing up

The Merrybegot

By Julie Hearn

Oxford University Press pound;4.99


By Ann Halam

Orion Children's Books pound;8.99

The Dream Merchant

By Isobel Hoving

Walker Books pound;14.99

The Merrybegot's proof copy had a little jewelled frog on its cover, which seemed apt for such a lively and brilliant work. This book leapt out at me.

It startled me and then held my attention. In the West Country at the end of the 17th century we meet three girls: Nell, the granddaughter of the local cunning woman and healer, and sisters Patience and Grace, the daughters of a horrible Puritan minister, newly arrived in the village.

Gradually, tragically and ludicrously, their three young lives entwine.

I held my breath and turned page after page. I learned about Merrybegots and frolicking on a warm night in May; I remembered Cider with Rosie and Hardy's Tess and all the literature of love and loss that awaits those who have enjoyed this book. I also learned about England during the Civil War, but more importantly, the author trusted me as a reader. Together we examined the nature of sexual and religious desire; of jealousy and envy; of bravery and cowardice. This is a fine book and I accepted its piskies and its miraculous reversal of death with delight. They fitted into the story as the acorn fits into its cup. My only slight regret is that the boys and men in The Merrybegot were so feeble, but this, in a sense, was part of the subject matter.

I was delighted to find Ann Halam's male characters as solid as the two female leads. The central figure is another girl, Sloe, whom we meet aged four and leave aged about 20. In between, we follow her breathtaking adventure and the developing relationship between this brave and attractive child and her brave and attractive mother. A fictional mother defined by work and by her championship of what she believes to be right, rather than by her sexual and domestic preoccupations, is a refreshing change.

The story is truly original. In the winter climate and almost seasonless terrain of a new Ice Age, Sloe and her mother endure, defy, outwit and finally escape from the grip of some future ramshackle and corrupt state.

This is another terrific read: a dystopian creation of endless winter and ultimate hope that avoids the cliches of the environmental nightmare genre.

From its dust jacket, to its Goethe quote: "Seed corn must not be ground", this is a lean, effective and moving book. I loved it and admired the clarity of thought and the elegance of its delivery.

The Dream Merchant, by contrast, is all effort and labour, with little result. I was reminded of the ineffectual teacher who shouts louder and louder and wonders why the class is rioting. It's a pity, as this is a beautiful book, with plastic rubies on the cover, maps on the end papers, a character list and beautiful chapter headings, but a dearth of valuable ideas.

Josh and his best friend Baz are dream travellers, in the pay and clutches of a global retail empire seeking to extend its power and profits backwards through time. Dreaming is the vehicle for their journeys. It's a neat device for a plot, and fun, but it's neither original nor challenging. The constant authorial nudges about the importance of the themes trivialises them and arouses our suspicions.

There are several entertaining set-pieces. My favourite was our hero's encounter with the washerwoman whose soap suds come from the dreams and feelings she has scrubbed and pounded from the soiled objects in her tub.

As the bubbles overflow, their transient surfaces reflect other worlds.

That's great stuff, but it's swamped by invention for invention's sake.

A similar problem cramps the characterisation. In an excess of action, the children remain wooden and underdeveloped. More seriously, they are always acted upon - the recipients rather than the instigators of events. It's such an old chestnut: the plucky little band of children with their faithful animal companions, almost always at the mercy of nasty adults who leap out at them from dark corners. It implies something about the proper status of the child that I dispute.

This author, compared with the other two here, has little confidence in the young reader. Every last little thing is described and explained. Every flickering mood is fixed. There is a fatal anxiety about control, an unwillingness to let the characters or the readers have views of their own.

The result is surfeit, like too much icing on a cake. It looks attractive, but after the first slice, only the truly fantasy-dependent will return for more and sadly, that's not me.

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