Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, Story of the Amulet, : Book review

Drink with this: Shirley Temple.

Classic non-alcoholic cocktail, with overtones of an earlier age of childish simplicity and innocence. Sickly sweet pink grenadine foiled by spicy and mischievous Blytonesque ginger ale.

The deal: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet are a series of books featuring siblings who encounter various magical objects. As a child reading Nesbit I was gripped by Five Children and It. Re-reading as an adult was a comforting experience, and FCAI would more than hold up for the first-time adult reader too. The second and third novels in the series were in essence reprisals of the first, with ever more plot holes and narrative inconsistencies. If you didn't read these as a child it's probably not worth bothering now.

However this series is a good place to start in familiarising yourself with Nesbit, whose writing still has a lot to offer today. Five Children and It has never been out of print since it's initial publication in 1902 and along with a rollicking plot line, Nesbit's narrative tone has a lot to do with this.

Unusually for the period she was writing in, she engages her reader (assumed to be a child) directly and as an equal. A compact is formed in which it is is given that magic is a literal matter of fact, grown-ups will never get it, and bonds between siblings are sacrosanct. Within the space of the novel, adults are marginal and suffer from both stupidity and an inability to perceive things obvious to children.

Her world is inclusive and timeless, a cosy and nostalgic environment. Misfortune, usually occuring in the form of being sent to bed without supper, is a fact of life but is rarely insurmountable. The Story of the Amulet sees real-life problems insinuate themselves into the plot but thankfully these are easily dispensed with by the end of the novel.

"Manages to make even the modern adult reader feel like a refugee from a childhood filled with magic"

Along with this comes the deep and abiding satisfaction of narrative resolution. Of course we all want to read about children who have the ability to travel through time, or place, or be granted wishes! And then we want to see these wishes unfold, sometimes with dire consequences. It's this underlying pragmatism and prim denial of happy ever afters which stops this series descending into saccharine fairy-tale territory. Wishes don't last forever and usually have a down-side.

Verdict: Holds it own despite being over a century old. Satisfyingly nostalgic after an inital suspension of disbelief. Manages to make even the modern adult reader feel like a refugee from a childhood filled with magic.

On the big screen: Both a film and TV series of FCAI have already been done. I've seen at least one of these but it left only a vague impression. With its absurd elements though, this might be a series of novels which better exist in the imagination. Or maybe I just hate how 90's CGI they made the Psammead look....

Highbrow/lowbrow: As a relic of a bygone era, it has now been elevated to classic status by default. I'm going to go with highbrow, as easy entertainment of its day requires effortful detachment now to enjoy in the same way.

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