Peril of mystic path

4th April 1997 at 01:00
WORM SONGS

Web Weaver

By Ann Coburn

Red Fox Pounds 2.99

BURNING ISSY

By Melvin Burgess

Hodder Pounds 3.99

Gaye Hicyilmaz isbothered rather than bewitched by the lureof the irrational.

As one who finds the view from the roller coaster of everyday life breathtaking, if not gob-smacking, I'm continually astounded by the enduring lure of the irrational. Isn't real life more than enough? But I'm outvoted. The siren calls of witches and devils, of time-travellers and of assorted humans with superhuman powers, are, it seems, irresistible.

Children's authors and their readers are enchanted. I suspect that publishers are too. There's something very safe in writing about things that don't exist. Nevertheless, this is a case of writer beware; rocks line the shore beneath this sparkling and popular tide.

Worm Songs and Web Weaver, the first two novels in Ann Coburn's Borderlands sequence, reveal a steady hand on the tiller and are a delight. The reader is in Enid Blyton country, with improvements. A small band of friends, two boys and two girls, enjoy a creepy adventure before being safely beached on the warm sand of family affection. These characters are unambiguous and the contemporary dramas which drive the plots are equally clear. Alice is anxious that her stepfather and younger stepbrothers regard her as the cuckoo in the nest. Frankie fears that the separation between her parents has not been caused by their divergent careers, as they say, but is actually the grim prelude to divorce.

In both books the four friends, all junior members of a photographic club, tumble into adventure when film they are developing reveals images that belong to other and past worlds. In Worm Songs they glimpse something of the terrible persecution of witches, and in Web Weaver a Victorian camera, with a life of its own, forces them to consider the question of whether "seeing is believing". The resolution of these mysteries dovetails with the resolution of the personal dramas. Ann Coburn understands that most paradoxical of childhood yearnings: the dream of a safe adventure.

Melvin Burgess's Burning Issy, republished in the Signature series, sails close to the rocks and the voyage is less sure. Isabel, nicknamed Burning Issy, was handed to Nat, her foster father, as a two-year-old. Wrapped in smouldering rags and with her skin badly scorched, Issy had clearly been snatched from a terrible death by burning. Her luck holds; Nat is a "cunning man" or healer who both cares for and loves the foundling. Issy's lonely childhood is enriched by her fatal friendship with Jennet, the destitute granddaughter of a witch, Demdyke. But those were dangerous times when witch hunts were in fashion.

One of the themes of the novel is the danger of a belief in guilt by association. It's a grave theme and the seriousness of Burgess's intent is not in doubt - he even adds a preface to direct readers - but I suspect that he saw the shadows of the rocks. This, he tells us, "is not a story about good and evil, or an attempt to show things as they really were, because that would deny the world as they saw and believed it. I have tried to show how it may have felt to live then." The intention is there but its execution founders.

Amid genuine excitement and wonderfully imagined scenes, such as when a witch's garden is likened to a green cloak thrown over a hillside, I was entertained but not bewitched. I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures of homestead life, the details of the Lancashire cloth trade and a particularly well described journey that Issy must make on foot. But it's not quite enough.

When is this happening - the 1600s? Or earlier? A serious novel should surely not avoid the issue by speaking of an undifferentiated "past". Similarly, death by burning and torture are almost unbearable to contemplate, and Issy witnesses both, but is not too deeply affected. Can we still be in the business of denying childhood trauma?

When authors respond to the lure of the irrational, they must think through the consequences. Issy escapes the torture chamber, thank goodness, but only because a "life force" opened her cell door.

Is this really the only hope we can offer children? And doesn't it trivialise the tragedies both of those whose cell doors remained shut and of prisoners today, whose doors will not open to free them? These, too, are dangerous times and writers must do more than trust in "life forces" to right wrongs, mustn't they?

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