Review - A regal read for adults and children

16th March 2012 at 00:00

Philip Pullman has said that he does not write for children: he writes books that children read. I think of this at various points while reading award-winning novelist Elizabeth Laird's new children's book, The Prince Who Walked With Lions.

I think of it, for example, as I read the heart-rendingly understated encounter between an Abyssinian king, going to his death, and his wife. The entire scene is described through the eyes of their young son: "I saw tears slide down her cheeks. I was afraid that Father would see them and be angry. He was always angry with me if I cried."

And again as the orphaned prince, Alamayu, talks about his dead mother: "I wish I could remember what Amma looked like, but her face has slipped away from me. All I can remember is the softness of her voice and the feel of her hand on mine."

The Prince Who Walked With Lions is, quite simply, a very good book. Regardless of the age of the reader.

It tells the true-ish story of Alamayu, whose capriciously brutal father, King Theodore II of Abyssinia, is defeated by the British in 1868.

The seven-year-old prince is taken into the care of his father's enemies. Specifically, he is looked after by Captain Speedy, the kind of Victorian colonial type who strides around in native garb. (As Laird has Alamayu remark, somewhat acerbically: "I sometimes wonder whether he knew as much about Abyssinia or our Coptic religion as he thought he did.")

Ultimately, he ends up at Rugby School, where he must come to terms with his own transformation from African prince into English schoolboy.

The historical story is compelling enough in itself. But where the novel really stands out is in Laird's ability to create characters that are quietly, effortlessly, emotionally real.

For example, though Alamayu has lost his parents, his homeland and his beloved nurse, it is the loss of two seashells that sends him into hysterics. And his night terrors unleash an inchoate fear that he suppresses during the day, because his father told him that monarchs must contain their emotions.

The characters are fully rounded, no matter how briefly they appear. Take, for example, Aleka Zanab, the elderly priest engaged as tutor to Alamayu. "We'll read from the Bible together," he suggests, trying - awkwardly, inexpertly - to comfort his young charge.

The Prince Who Walked With Lions is not perfect. There is occasional clunky use of metaphor. And a two-pronged narrative, split between past and present, does not really work: the distinction between the strands is often hazy.

But it was, from start to finish, a pleasure to read. This is not true of all children's books. It should be.

The Prince Who Walked With Lions, Macmillan, hardback #163;12.99.

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