Secrets of the Nile

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Pepi and the Secret Names, By Jill Paton Walsh Illustrated by Fiona French, Frances Lincoln Pounds 9.99. 0 7112 0867 0 Croco'Nile. By Roy Gerrard Gollancz Pounds 8.99. 0 575 05600 2. Here are two books that demonstrate the enduring decorative spell which Egypt, the most glamorous of ancient civilisations, has cast over modern Western design. Art Deco factories, Tutankhamun-inspired jewellery, lotus-blossom cocktail cabinets, and, of course, children's books: Egypt is part of us.

Jill Paton Walsh's Pepi and the Secret Names engages with the visual directly. Pepi is the son of a painter employed to decorate the tomb of Prince Dhutmose, and he persuades the lion, the crocodile and other fierce beasts to come and pose for his father by revealing that he knows their secret names. The names are shown to us in hieroglyphs, which we can decipher by means of a key at the back.

It's a delightful idea, though I'm not sure how Pepi manages to say them, because you can't speak in hieroglyph any more than you can in sans serif; I'd have been happier if he'd drawn them in the sand. However, the story is both serious and engaging. Art is about dangerous and important matters, as Jill Paton Walsh's work in other forms is showing us with increasing clarity and force, and at the same time it's a source of sensual delight. Fiona French's illustrations have an appropriately Pharaonic sumptuousness and elegance.

Roy Gerrard's Croco'Nile also uses the idea of including messages in hieroglyphs for us to decipher. Unfortunately, the book doesn't include a key, though if you had a copy of Pepi and the Secret Names handy, you could use that, at a pinch. The story is about two children, who, like Pepi's father, are busy with the visual arts (didn't the ancient Egyptians do anything else?) and it's told in Roy Gerrard's idiosyncratic method of slightly old-fashioned ballad-meter verse with elaborate watercolour illustration. The pictures are some of the best he's done, blending mock-Egyptian decorative effects with exquisitely rendered scenes of his strange, stumpy, but utterly believable people, and some of the best palm trees I've ever seen, all depicted in muted colours and set in a space that looks unaccountably like silence.

So far so good. But although Gerrard is a fine illustrator, he isn't a storyteller. The narrative moves in awkward lunges, with some kidnappers turning up out of nowhere on page 26, simply in order to get the children on to a boat which will be wrecked on page 28, simply in order that their friend the crocodile can take them home; and the hieroglyphs are decorative and not integral, as they are in Pepi and the Secret Names. However, the words are less important here than the pictures, which will give pleasure for a long time.

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