Monday, February 19, 2007

Two books

I read two books in the last few day that I thought were worth mentioning here.

The first was Tuck Everlasting, an American classic written by Natalie Babbitt in 1975. It's quite a slim little book but extremely profound - how do these authors manage to load such slight texts with such laden meaning without overburdening them? So beautiful and elegantly sparse. The main theme is death and pretty much everything I wrote in my D post (written before reading the book) applies to this text. It is about a girl who discovers a family who have drunk from a stream of eternal life and are immortal. The novel explores whether or not this power is valuable or desirable. It's a book I've always been aware of but never got round to reading because I thought it might be twee or fey. It's not. It's quite understated though very sensory, and there's no jingle-jangling plinky music magicky bits - all the fantasy elements are written in a straightforward and seamless way. (How much do you bet that appears on the back of the book one day?)

The other was Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Gorgeous and spooky. Coraline discovers a door to nowhere in her apartment which ends up being to somewhere - a through the looking glass type landscape inhabited by her 'other mother and father' who want Coraline to live with them and be their daughter. Coraline's own parents end up trapped in the other world and Coraline must use all her wits to escape. The imagery is truly haunting and beautiful and (yes) melancholy - almost as if melancholy is manifested in the environment - the other parents' black button eyes, the fluttering paper butterfly, a dismembered hand as pale as bone, an elven child with cobweb wings, black beetles eaten from a paper bag like chocolate raisins. Well worth a read, but not straight before bed!

Is melancholy one of those ingredients that elevates a book into a classic? In both these books, melancholy is sited in the adult world, or more particularly in the child's gaze turned on the adult's world and in the tension of adult/child relationships. It is not the children who themselves are melancholic, it is the adults viewed through the child's eyes, it is the adult's world which the child is separate from but subject to (and they know one day they will enter it - perhaps this is the true source of melancholy, the death of the child, the loss of something childlike in the adult? Or is it the presence of something childlike, a kind of infantile greed? The incompleteness, the transition...) Perhaps if the children themselves are melancholic, are sites or objects of melancholy, then they belong in an adult book, because children don't see themselves as melancholic (whereas adults often see kids as melancholic I think, and childhood as a melancholic state).


  1. Don't see the Tuck Everlasting film. Saccharine in the extreme.

  2. Anonymous10:06 AM

    Penni, I like what you say about Coraline. It *is* a melancholic little number isn't it? There is a question of thresholds as you say, of crossing over to the world of adults and an anxiety about what that might entail. But what haunted me about the book was the way it identified a promise of unending pleasures as the lure out of Coraline's secure world and just how seductive that seemed to be for her. There was something addicitive (and poisoning) about the 'other mother', the way she held out the promise of pleasure without restraint. At that perhaps asks a question about how the child situates themselves in the adult world: how free am I? What are the limits of my responsibility? The book seems to provoke these questions in a sharp and chilly way. Fun, though.

  3. Yes, it definitely upped the stakes when the other children became involved, when Coraline was responsible not just for recovering herself or people connected to her, but three other not-hers as well.

    That lure of neverending pleasure too was almost unemotional for Coraline, almost a given for her that that was what she would want - chilly indeed. Reminiscent of the flat, cold avariciousness of Fred after she's opened an x number of presents on Christmas day and the thrill has gone, the dullness in her eyes as she uncovers each new thing and then moves on to the next.