Unearthly powers

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Jan Mark reads tales of relationships, love and death


By Ursula Le Guin Orion Children's Books pound;10.99

Sharp North

By Patrick Cave Simon Schuster pound;12.99

The Orange Girl

By Jostein Gaarder Weidenfeld Nicolson pound;9.99

The Witch of Clatteringshaws

By Joan Aiken Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

Ursula Le Guin's Gifts is set in reiver country, not the Anglo-Scottish borders but an imagined landscape of similar austerity.

Rival clans can and do resort to combat, but most of the time an uneasy peace is maintained by supernatural talents which they pit against each other, either pre-emptively or in retaliation. Some of the gifts are relatively benign - the ability to call animals, telekinesis; others are terrifyingly destructive - none more so than the gift of undoing, reducing a living thing to its component parts, at its most terrifying when the possessor has no control over it. Gifts are passed from parent to child and Orrec's father is desperate to believe that his late-developing son has inherited the family's gift of undoing. When it finally seems that he has, it turns out to be an ungovernable force.

Orrec, a gentle soul with no desire to destroy anything, willingly submits to going about blindfolded - what he cannot see he cannot harm - but it begins to dawn on him that his fearsome reputation may be more powerful than his gift.

As usual, Le Guin gives no indication that any of this is invented; the fantastic element is delivered so matter-of-factly as to be taken for granted. The heart of the novel is a truthful story of people and their relationships.

Sharp North by Patrick Cave is about relationships of a rather different kind. The Gulf Stream has stopped, northern Europe has frozen, then thawed, flooding the land. The bulk of populations subsist in varying degrees of squalor while a few wealthy families control the utilities.

Having genetically engineered themselves to perfection, they engage publicly in dynastic marriages and privately maintain a bank of living spare parts. Every child "born" to them is one of a set of clones, some developed simultaneously, some held in reserve and released at intervals.

However, instead of keeping this valuable resource sequestered, the families allow the clones to grow up at large and the fun starts when some of them start breaking out, discovering first each other and then what is going on.

There is a certain amount of redundant material here, and way too many characters; keeping up with the clones is exercising enough. People and their conversations are not Cave's forte, but there are some striking evocations of scenery and a marvellously realised piece of technology: a drone train, trundling massively and driverless through rural France, periodically unfolding a battery of solar dishes along its back. Note to all concerned: we do not wrack our brains, we rack them.

The orange girl herself, as portrayed artily on the jacket of Jostein Gaarder's short novel, bears no resemblance to the character as written, a merry-hearted student in an old orange anorak. Georg, the 15-year-old narrator, begins by explaining that he is writing the book with his dead father after coming into possession of a letter written to him many years earlier. The story is in the letter.

What emerges from this is an immensely affecting portrait of a young man in love - with life, the universe and everything. As a medical student he meets the orange girl on a tram, loses her, finds her, marries her, fathers a son and then just when it seems that fortune could offer him no more, learns that he is dying.

His own metaphor for the letter he writes to the child he will not watch grow up is the Hubble telescope, just then launched into orbit to show us the past by photographing the light of ancient stars. "It has taken the universe almost 15 billion years to graft on something as fundamental as an eye to see itself by."

In a prescient envoi Joan Aiken ended The Witch of Clatteringshaws with an apologia for the shortness of this final instalment of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, now published a year after her death.

Aware that she might not finish a full-length book, she kept faith with her readers by bringing the saga to a conclusion "even if it meant taking some wild leaps I and leaving some things unexplained".

But what would an Aiken novel be without wild leaps? Devotees will take them in their stride, sustained by the usual quota of mayhem and sudden death delivered with her customary cheery panache. She was solid gold original to the very end.

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