Well dressed in whimsy

1st March 1996 at 00:00
THE IT DOESN'T MATTER SUIT. By Sylvia Plath Illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner. Faber. Pounds 8.99

For an adult reader, perhaps especially an adult who read Sylvia Plath's poetry in the 1960s, anything by or about Sylvia Plath summons up a uniquely intense universe where perception and emotion blend in one overwhelming surge of colour, sound and feeling the surf creaming off Egg Rock, a baby ticking like a fat gold watch. Add to that acres of biography and back-biting and you get a heady brew into which to drop a "new book", an innocuous little fable about a boy who gets a new suit.

Aficionados of the Plath legend will no doubt nod their heads sagely when they note that one of the characters in the It Doesn't Matter Suit is called Otto, like Plath's father. Others may deduce from the remarkably Germanic cast of the tale that in writing for children Sylvia was looking back to her own Germanically-influenced infancy, most infamously immortalised in the poem "Daddy, Daddy" in which she upbraids a father figure for being both "a bit of a Jew" and a "Nazi". Others, such as a 10-year- old reading aloud to a six-year-old , might just derive some mild amusement from the short narrative.

Max Nix is one of seven brothers. He always wanted his own suit. One day a beautiful mustard-yellow suit with shiny brass buttons arrives in a parcel. It seems destined for Papa Nix or one of the six older brothers, but one by one they reject it because of their fear of social embarrassment what would the other anglers, bowlers, fellows think? Finally Mama Nix gets to cut the suit right down to Max's size and he doesn't mind what it looks like, so It Doesn't Matter where he wears it. And, in fact, wherever he does wear it, it's just fine. It Doesn't Matter.

Well for Sylvia, who suffered and inflicted agonies of embarrassment in her social career, if she had had an It Doesn't Matter Suit. And well for the young reader who may have worries about fitting in: the repetition and resolution of the suit's disposal down the chain of father and seven brothers both soothes and amuses. Not so well for the Plath fan looking for another piece of that intense universe. This is Sylvia telling it how she wishes it was, rather than how she feels it is.

However, as a read-to-the-class book for Years 1 or 2, the It Doesn't Matter Suit could become as much of a classic as Ariel is for moody 17-year-olds; each in its way holds as much unease as the soul can bear, here clothed in whimsy, there in air and fire.

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