Like nothing you've ever read before;Children's books

30th April 1999 at 01:00
THE ECLIPSE OF THE CENTURY. By Jan Mark Scholastic Press. pound;14.99.

Thesis writers will discuss the intricacies of Jan Mark's millennial tour-de-force. There will be arguments about whether or not it is a children's book; students may make it a cult; a director may turn it into a movie. But meanwhile here it is to read: 450 pages of fiction that's like nothing else but itself.

In a near-death experience Keith Chapman has a vision of a place called Qantoum and of a woman summoning him there for the millennium. He follows this dream and ends up in an invented Central Asia republic.

The desert sings at the edges of the derelict town where trains no longer stop. A strange collection of characters lives there - all there for different reasons. The Suryat, a tribe waiting for the star stones to be restored to them, surrounds the town. There is a museum, where the Westerners huddle, a school, a cathedral and a cemetery.

Keith's farewell e-mails, telling his friends where he is going, have unforeseen consequences. Assorted nuts converge on Qantoum, with tragic and hilarious consequences.

Jan Mark has created a place so real that by the end of the book you know it intimately. Escher, the graphic artist, could have drawn this town, for staircases and roofs run into one another with dizzying complication. She has enormous fun with the Equispherians, the Joggers for Jesus, the Hobbits, and tree-huggers, but can move the reader to tears. She writes with dazzling precision. A fox-fur cloak is described as: "a con-glomerate of flayed mammals" and the scorch-marks left on a blue wall by a burning torch is "a tulip" of smoke.

Every character in this book, except a 14-year-old girl, is adult. Does it matter? No. This is not a book for children, though many children will gobble it up. It's for everyone who will enjoy it, and should be entered for all the adult prizes, otherwise adults will be deprived of a rare treat: a writer working at the top of her extraordinarily imaginative and quirky form.

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