Bookish breaks from the winter blues

Well now, Christmas has been and gone, and the thank-you letters are long since written, and we’re all long since back to school and to work, and the nights are drawing out again, which should cheer us – but somehow doesn’t, because we have that long pull through the dank days of January and February, and either we moan because it has snowed and everything has seized up, or it hasn’t and then we wish it would. In our minds, we’re all ready to head for the slopes or the Caribbean, back home ten days later in an insufferable glow of health, relaxation and out-of-season colour. In reality, we’re wondering if it’s really worth going somewhere else to be rained on differently over half term.

When you need to escape, in your mind, children’s books can serve you pretty well: it’s one of their more important functions, after all. Narnia, Rivendell, Hogwarts and the like may well serve to stretch our imaginative capacity, or explore moral issues at a remove, but we wouldn’t keep reading unless they were also exotic, seductive and a delicious release from the tedium of school, home, routine, February and the endlessly disappointing everyday. Adults become coy about escaping to imaginary places: those are relegated to genres, sci-fi and fantasy, chick-lit or thrillers – all, in their different ways, patronised and sidelined, however popular they may be in terms of sales or library borrowings. Instead, the acceptable form of escapism for grown-ups is in history or geography or a winning combination of the two: intrigue in Tudor England or Ottoman Istanbul, Vichy France, Cold War Russia, contemporary India, not to mention the brittle comedies of manners played out between fellow Anglophones in the more picturesque parts of Provence, Italy, the Greek islands and beyond. You might suit the story to the holiday – or if you can’t manage the holiday, content yourself with the story and assure yourself that “it’s almost as good as being there.”

Oddly enough, city-break literature for children isn’t nearly as wide-ranging or established as that for adults. I leave you to supply the obvious explanations; but I am now curious to know how many books offer children a real (or unreal) sense of other cities in the real world. For purposes of this piece, I am choosing to neglect a swathe of excellent books set in ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome (although I may have covered some  of them in Time Travel), and concentrate on living cities, visitable and recognisable today. I’m also sidestepping all the many excellent historical and contemporary tales set in a real or recognisable London, exotic as that may be if you’re based outside the UK: I am looking for places where the language and manner of speaking is different, the assumptions and customs aren’t what you’re used to and the bread tastes odd, although not unpleasant. Places like Paris, actually, or Vienna, or Venice…

As it happens, we’ve been to Paris once or twice before: in my post on life after Rainbow Magic fairies, I brought to your attention Rupert Kingfisher’s beautifully-packaged confections, Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles and its two sequels. We are, let it be said, firmly in fantasy Paris here: you’ll not be able to retrace Madeleine‘s steps through the city to find Madame Pamplemousse’s curious establishment, nor locate Monsieur Lard‘s odiously pretentious restaurant; yet if you’ve ever ventured into some tiny, time-forgotten back street épicerie fine, crammed with undreamed-of delicacies, all truffles and rose petals and doubtless fresh ortolans if you know how or whom to ask, or endured an indifferent meal in a one-time gastronomic temple, served with haste, disdain and an audacious bill at the end, you’ll recognise the essential truth of the portrait – like salted caramels, all richness and sweetness with just the right amount of grit.

Sally Gardner, meanwhile, takes us to real historical Paris (albeit with a strong dash of magic and the supernatural) in her French Revolution-set Red Necklace and Silver Blade. As ever, Gardner’s eye for detail is as clear and true as a painter and as bright and greedy as a magpie: her characters live, breathe, love, scheme, fear and overcome fear irresistibly in a time when  one day’s popular hero may just as well be guillotine fodder the next.

What would Gardner’s heroes make of Hugo Cabret’s Paris? They’d surely find the Gare de Montparnasse in its pomp, and the imaginative bizarreries of early silent cinema, at least as fearsome and supernatural as their nemesis Count Kalliowski. How have I not found occasion to write before about Brian Selznick’s truly wonderful Invention of Hugo Cabret, for  once well matched by its movie incarnation Hugo? The story is a beautifully-crafted Chinese box puzzle, with two children unravelling converging mysteries and legacies: orphaned Hugo living unnoticed within the station’s walls and corridors and boxrooms, patiently restoring the intricate automaton that was his father’s passion, and free-spirited Isabelle, with her grumpy, reclusive grandfather selling toys in a station booth and turning his back on his past as a silent film pioneer. In the meantime, on Hugo’s trail is the implacable Station Inspector, for whom Hugo is no more than a tiresome irregularity and a petty thief… The tale plays out beautifully between episodes of wordless images in atmospheric soft pencil, and conventional words-narrative; publishers Scholastic have risen to the occasion with a handsome production of black-bordered pages.

Hugo lives in the interstices; Matteo lives on the margins, similarly unobserved, on the rooftops. Katherine Rundell’s exhilarating Rooftoppers is set in an uncertain twentieth-century time in which characters travel (sometimes fatally) by ship or by train, and it’s shocking for seven-year-old girls (let alone their mothers) to wear trousers, and yet there’s a powerful, humourless state agency in place to determine that mild-mannered scholars are not fit to bring up female orphans. Faced with separation, Sophie and her guardian Charles flee to Paris in search of the cello-playing mother Sophie is convinced must still be alive. Within days, they are under suspicion and confined to their modest hotel; and then Matteo, quite literally, drops into Sophie’s life through a newly-opened skylight, introducing her to an unimagined world of roof-roaming, tree-climbing and tightrope-walking high above the city streets, the colony of overlooked urchins living aloft and the less benign gariers that threaten them. Rooftoppers have a precarious life, but it has its advantages: the opportunity to learn languages through eavesdropping on embassy receptions, for one, and also the easy access to upper floors of highly guarded buildings such as police archives: singularly useful, if you’re looking for a mother who did not officially drown in a shipwreck that was not officially an insurance scam… Rooftoppers beautifully combines a compelling mystery and adventure with gleeful kicking-over of conventions and even conventional viewpoints: Paris with its conjoined, city-wide six- or seven-storey building blocks couldn’t be a better place for a secret roof-dwelling overworld.

For escapism of an imperially grand yet comfortable sort, all coffee and cakes and waltz music, where better than imperial Vienna with Eva Ibbotson as your guide? The Star of Kazan sees the enchanting city through the bright eyes of Annika, mysteriously found as a baby in a mountain church and adopted by a kindly cook and housemaid and their employers, the three unworldly professors. Annika is brought up with great practicality and dear love by her adoptive family, and has devoted friends, from cheerful neighbour Stefan to the neglected old lady who enjoys her company, yet dreams of being reclaimed by her real mother. And yet the longed-for reunion, when it comes, strikes a false note, with her new family behaving more and more oddly. Marooned in a chilly and underfurnished Prussian castle, Annika battens down homesickness for her storybook Vienna, and it is for her old family to understand the duplicity of the new one and undertake an increasingly urgent rescue mission… Ibbotson recalls the glittering Vienna of her own heritage with irresistible warmth and humour.

From Vienna to the ultimate escapist destination, Venice – although in children’s-book terms, it’s rarely a place of comfort and never of safety. Cornelia Funke’s Thief Lord has more child fugitives, Prosper and Bo, taken in by local urchins and hiding in an abandoned cinema, provided for by the enigmatic young Thief Lord, tailed by an incompetent detective, befriended by a prickly artist… and ultimately drawn in by the spell of a legendary carousel with the power to turn time. This isn’t picture-postcard Venice at all, but a mysterious place of worn, shabby and secretive things, and no less alluring for that.

Michelle Lovric’s Venice is a more fantastical place altogether, fabulous and feverish in equal measure, beginning in dense fog with a family party setting forth to a christening on nearby Murano, and almost instantly struck down by tragedy. Some eleven years later, Teodora visits the city with her adoptive parents from Naples, and feels an instant affinity; a gift of a mysterious book draws her into the hidden world of salty-tongued mermaids (they learned human language from sailors), sinister statues, malevolent seagulls, erudite cats and some truly horrifying historic traitors. Teo learns a highly-charged secret history of the city and discovers her own role in it, along with fellow orphan Renzo, the “studious son” of a gondolier; together they must raise an unlikely army of human and supernatural allies, both living and ghostly, to prevent the plague and ruin unleashed by the crazed revenant Bajamonte Tiepolo. Lovric’s imagination is a ferment of the strange, the exotic, the alluring and the grotesque, shot through with flashes of humour, to which the mermaids with their passion for curry contribute greatly. I must admit that I began to find it a little overwrought as the final confrontation approached; but the resident eleven-year-old was beguiled, and lapped up sequel The Mourning Emporium and the similarly Venice-set Talina in the Tower and The Fate in the Box.

The Undrowned Child
reminded me  – not only because of Mark Robertson’s cover art – a little of the vein of strangeness in The Flowing Queen, which I’ll admit I preferred: as returning readers may recall, it was my favourite of the children’s books in translation I reviewed last summer, not least thanks to Anthea Bell’s gold-standard translation. Here again, glossy presentable tourist Venice is not to be seen; instead we have a Venice besieged, shabby and hungry, willing to seek alliances in the unlikeliest places, including Hell itself. Here are more marginal children: orphaned Merle, blind Junipa, pickpocket Serafin. Merle and Junipa are taken in by Arcimboldo, a mirror-maker cast out by his guild, and more open-minded than most: his housekeeper Eft is one of the scarily beautiful shark-toothed mermaids that the Venetians both fear and oppress. Merle has her own magical mirror – one which seems to show a watery surface, and into which you can dip a hand or an arm, although the mirror is flat-backed, and sometimes feel a hand within taking hold of yours… When Merle and Serafin stumble upon a plot to betray the city to the Pharaonic Army, with its legions of undead warriors, Merle is forced into the role of unlikely saviour, and guardian of the Flowing Queen, spirit of the city, without whom all hope is lost. While her fellow Venetians negotiate and scheme, Merle must make her own unlikely alliances, including the winged stone lion known as the Traitor of Old. First in a trilogy that continues with The Stone Light  and The Glass Word, The Flowing Queen is one of the most rewarding and imaginative fantasies I have come across lately.

Another rewarding discovery – one that had been on my must-get-round-to list for some years – was Mary Hoffmann’s Stravaganza sequence, the first of which is set in a mirror-world Venice. In our own world, Lucien is a teenager undergoing chemotherapy; but when he falls asleep holding a salvaged notebook covered in marbled paper, he wakes up strong and healthy in sixteenth-century Talia, in the city-state of Bellezza. Hoffmann has had some fun and exercised great ingenuity in creating her Venice-that-isn’t-Venice: it is ruled not by a Doge but by a Duchessa, always masked; its characteristic small boats are the almond-shaped mandolas, and its basilica is faced not with gold but with the more highly-valued silver. Controlling city-states across the rest of Talia, and seeking to add Bellezza to their domain, is the manipulative di Chimici family under unscrupulous patriarch Niccoló; the di Chimici family will play an increasing part throughout the sequence, each book of which is set in a different Talian city. In City of Masks, Lucien is helped and protected firstly by would-be mandolier Arianna, and then by Rodolfo the alchemist, court adviser and secret husband to the Duchessa. It soon becomes apparent that Lucien has a vital role to play in preserving Bellezza, protecting the Duchessa and her possible successor: a dangerous one, too, given that the di Chimici won’t hold back from kidnapping or assassination to achieve their political ends. Bellezza seems like a particularly vivid and exotic dream, but it becomes clear that events in Bellezza have the power to impact on Lucien in his home world and exact the highest of prices. Further books in the sequence build up the tensions between lethal intrigue in Talia and crises in the home world: bullying, absent parents, misunderstanding girlfriends, with Hoffmann cutting expertly between the two. The resident eleven-year-old and I have been vying for copies, both equally gripped.

So you may not be surrounded by fresh powder this half term (unless it’s washing powder), and you may be seeing more leafless beeches than palm-fringed beaches; but at the very least, why not treat yourself to a bookish getaway?


One comment

  1. I do like your exploration of cities through fiction, with guides of which only a handful are familiar to me — Ibbotson, Funke, Hoffman. Must seek out some of the others!

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