The other side of fiction

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Cuddy, By William Mayne, Cape Pounds 9.99. 0 22 403687 4 Martin Farrell, By Janni Howker, Julia MacRae Pounds 8.99. 1 85681 225 1. These two novels show children's literature at its most sophisticated and daring. Ange's Dad in William Mayne's Cuddy says of the book's story that it is "as if it was written on a palimpsest, parchment that has been scraped clean and written over again. We must interpret it by looking at every detail. Often the truth isn't close by, but at the other side of fiction, and certainly stranger". The same could be said of Janni Howker's Martin Farrell.

Prose that demands such close attention as this will not be to every reader's taste, but those who do fall under each writer's spell will pore over these pages in a feverish journey to "the other side of fiction".

That's not to say that either book is an entirely satisfying read; just that in each case the writers are putting their skill, craft, and passion at the service of their art, not of the marketplace. In today's world of literary commodities, that is no small thing.

Mayne's book starts like one of his time-slip treasure hunts of the late 60s or early 70s, but soon mutates into something stranger and wilder. In summary, it sounds like one of those earlier books: a group of children, all cousins, are the descendents of the special brotherhood of monks who cared for the body of St Cuthbert after the Vikings raided Lindisfarne. Now Cuthbert, or Cuddy, calls on them to gather together seven holy talismans that will enable some part of him "between body and soul" to return to his own island paradise. But such a summary scarcely conveys the true quality of the book, which is a kind of fable of spiritual transformation, full of all kinds of peculiar ingredients.

One of Cuddy's chief characters, for instance, is a teddy bear called Beowulf, who is really a thousand-year-old real bear, inside whom there still lives, and argues, a nun called Elfrida, part-eaten by the bear in the Dark Ages and resurrected by St Cuthbert. Beowulf and Elfrida make up a quarrelsome cross-talk double act on the fringes of the real action, where human children cross boundaries of time, species, and space to carry out Cuddy's wishes.

The children - especially Ange, Beowulf's owner, and her neglected and abused cousin Jude - are drawn with Mayne's usual wit and precision, despite the fact that most of the time they and their doings are fogged in mystery. While at the start Ange seems the central character, by the end the focus has shifted to Jude, and her inner salvation at Cuddy's hands. On one level, the book is really about the difference between Christianity and paganism, as symbolised in a brilliant set-piece in which Cuddy overcomes the Norse war god Tyr; although, as he explains, really "it is myself that I have fought against".

One reading can't possibly fully explore this odd, compelling novel. For the moment, one must accept Cuddy's word, that "if you understand there is a miracle, then there is".

Mayne's idiosyncratic prose style, with its oblique meanings, rearranged syntax, and highly personal rhythms, has inspired many British children's writers to trust their own voice. Janni Howker, the shooting star of the 1980s, is one who seems to owe him this debt. Martin Farrell, her short but highly concentrated new novel, takes verbal and grammatical contortion to a new extreme, and it takes a good while to get attuned to the lilt and sway of it, "far, high, and wild like an Irish bone drum". Some of it is very beautiful - a frightened boy has a voice "as blue as a bruise" - but the sentences are deliberately constructed to repel easy understanding. Much of the book is written in questions, exclamations and asides, and lucidity is not the aim.

Instead, Howker has tried to make a prose equivalent of one of the violent old ballads of the border rivers: dark, intense, and troubling. This novel, with its deadly knifepoint elegance and its tortured, fragmented narrative stance, is modern fiction as defined by B S Johnson's Christie Malry: "nasty, brutalist, and short".

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