Never say never...

6th October 2006 at 01:00
Elaine Williams discovers that Peter Pan has been given a new lease of life, but Neverland is not as it was

Ever since JM Barrie created Peter Pan, the story of the boy who never grows old and never wants to grow old has captured the nation's collective consciousness.

Barrie tapped into a kind of archetypal longing, a deep desire to remain in mythical childhood, forever climbing trees and swashbuckling with pirates, evading the messiness of adult life.

Never mind that the book was rooted in the middle-class domestic setting of Edwardian England, that the fairies were to be found in Kensington Gardens and the children were called Darling; youngsters and adults across nation, race and class, have fallen for the dream of everlasting escape into a world of pure adventure. Peter Pan forever swoops across his Neverland dream world and Captain Hook remains forever with his ticking clock in the crocodile's belly.

Except that now we have a sequel, and Hook is released, his reincarnation creating a darker, deeper shadow across the narrative. Peter Pan in Scarlet: The Official Sequel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, published this week by Oxford University Press, has Barrie's clarity, humour and lightness of touch, but the narrative resonates with a sense of fracture and foreboding.

In the sequel, Neverland is leaking and the children who returned from it, now grown-ups with good jobs, are disturbed to find its debris - daggers, a pile of leaves, a hook, a sword, an Indian headdress - littering their London homes and places of work. The only way to dispel the nightmares is to return, with "Mrs" Wendy showing them the way.

McCaughrean gives us a Neverland disordered. Like Narnia under the White Witch or the Ancient Mariner's seascape after the death of the albatross, Neverland is cast into gloom, the sky is no longer blue, the lagoon is poisoned and lifeless, the Jolly Roger an unpeopled shell and Peter a lonely, friendless figure. We are treated to an odyssey across wastes, mountains, through mazes full of grieving nannies and swamps through which the "grown-up" children follow Peter in pursuit of hollow desires.

Throughout they are shadowed by a obsequious, insidious and threatening figure called Ravello.

Peter Pan was published in 1906, less than a decade before the Great War.

In the sequel some of the Lost Children and Pirates, as well as one of the Darlings, have been lost forever in battle. In her afterword Geraldine McCaughrean suggests that the disorder of Neverland is caused by flying debris from the Big War which tore at its fabric and allowed "grown-up mess" to leak in. Yet this is not a downbeat or heavy-going tale, but a story alive with humour: quirky and funny characters, witty moments and passages that roll the narrative along, giving it lightness of texture.

Moreover, the spirit of Hook, in all its gleaming scarlet audacity, is restored. McCaughrean says: "Neverland without Hook was doomed to being dismal in perpetuity. In the original the Lost Boys really hankered to be pirates, and I have always found the villains more interesting."

McCaughrean is a poised and versatile writer, a mistress of retelling old tales as well as a creator of memorable and original characters. Peter Pan in Scarlet, with its flowing prose, web of literary references and vivid imagery, has all the hallmarks of a 21st-century classic. Like the original, it is a rollicking adventure story. McCaughrean plunged straight into writing this sequel after finishing The White Darkness, a forceful novel for teenagers linked to Captain Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition.

Barrie, who worshipped adventurers and explorers, was godfather to Captain Scott's son and Scott wrote to Barrie asking him to keep an eye on the boy.

"In writing the sequel I felt I was looking after Barrie's child, just as he looked after Scott's," McCaughrean says.

She won a competition to write the Peter Pan sequel set by Great Ormond Street Hospital, to celebrate Peter Pan's centenary and for the hospital to continue to benefit from the copyright bequeathed to the hospital by JMBarrie.

She says: "People asked me whether I was daunted by the responsibility, but in fact the narrative just sucked me in. It is the capacity for the imagining that it gives, the appeal of stepping into other lives in other worlds that makes it a timeless story. I wanted to remain true to Barrie while reanimating the tale for today.

"I want it to be like having two bookends, with Peter Pan at one end of the shelf and Peter Pan in Scarlet at the other."

Peter Pan in Scarlet: The Official Sequel by Geraldine McCaughrean is published by Oxford University Press, pound;12.99

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