It seemed appropriate, returning to the Carnegie Shortlist, to alternate and talk this time about a book for ‘middle-grade’ readers (though, that’s a strange designation, isn’t it? Not quite so good for the self-esteem than ‘young adult’). At first glance, this latest novel from Kate Saunders (of whom I only know the pitch perfect E. Nesbit sequel, Five Children on the Western Front) appears aimed at a distinctly young reader: when Emily learns a door has opened between the world of imagination and the real world – the Hard World – she makes the acquaintance of a multitude of stuffed toys, and helps repel an invasion of sadness incarnate. Indeed, the book does delight in funny rhymes, cuddly characters and food fights, but from the first line, we know we will be exploring a much heavier theme: ‘When Holly died, Bluey suddenly fell silent and all the lights went out in Smockeroon.’
Smockeroon is the land devised and narrated by Emily for her older, critically ill sister Holly, although both girls have inhabited it imaginatively. Bluey, Holly’s beloved teddy bear, lives in Smockeroon and spends his days there indulging in jelly fights and inventing such life necessities as the five-minute Fart Siren alert. Holly is dead from the first page and her family’s sense of loss is felt throughout the novel. Initially, Emily is totally withdrawn (and at the same time, abandoned by old friends), she devotes her attention during class to her Bluey Book, a private chronicle of memories of Smockeroon, and the occasional new invention, now without an audience. On meeting the stuffed penguins and dolls that stumble accidentally into her room, though, she learns something impossibly wonderful and wonderfully impossible: Bluey, though cremated in the real world, lives on in Smockeroon and “spends most of his time playing with his owner”.
I must admit, my hackles rose at that point. Not only had Saunders firmly established by now that the endlessly sensitive subject of grief (and a child’s grief, too) would be central to her story, it now seemed that she would be exploring it with the most mawkishly sentimental tropes imaginable. This is a dangerous line to walk, and throughout the novel I was unsure whether Saunders would guide us satisfactorily through. The novel is wonderfully witty, the kind of wit that effortlessly knits together realist and fantastical worlds with language and character. But Emily keeps looking back longingly towards Smockeroon, even when it seems extraordinarily dangerous to do so, drawn by the unquenchable hope of seeing Holly and Bluey again. Each time I wondered, how will this, how can this be resolved in a way that does justice to its characters, its themes and its readers. I was intrigued to see reader recommendations on the flyleaf from Yzabelle and Priya, age 8, as well as Gina and Darth, age 9. The sunlit primary colours of the Land of Neverendings are muted by authentically dark shadows.
It’s clear from the book’s Afterword, though, that this is a very personal novel. Smockeroon’s alternate name, ‘the Land of Neverendings’, derives from the imaginary world made up years ago by antique shop owner Ruth for her son, Danny, before his death in a road accident. Ruth has a crucial role in the novel as a strong, responsible adult figure, capable of offering guidance and experience of grief (complemented, here and there, by words from Emily’s English teacher, with her own experience of grief). She is never a dry, functional character, however – she is a full-on participant in the adventure, risking nearly everything for the dream of entering Smockeroon and visiting her son there. Occasionally, she is as much in need of emotional guidance as Emily. The result is beautifully balanced, the tone of the novel never becoming twee or distressing. I can imagine this novel being a consoling experience fpr some readers, but not because it avoids jagged, difficult emotional terrain. It explores them, however, with a sure tread and as the novel progresses, makes toward safer ground.
The plot demands that Emily cannot enter Smockeroon and take part in events there, which makes for an unconventional and satisfyingly understated plot. The last third of the novel, though, I found a little less satisfying – a quest in the real world where the stakes never quite feel as high as they seemed when wrapped in mystery. Conscious of the author’s terrific earlier success with Nesbit’s Psammead, the search for ‘an old magic bear’, a bear that ‘[thousands] of children have seen … and loved … and filled him with huge amounts of imagination’, feels tantalisingly like it will lead to re-enchantment of (perhaps) the world’s ultimate teddy bear. Perhaps in a parallel world, Emily and co. avert production on Disney’s 2018 schmaltzfest Christopher Robin, and sit down to re-read The House at Pooh Corner. Perhaps, too, I’m reading as a stuffy adult with a yen for metafiction; the solution to the quest, when it comes, is more original (and many people are with Dorothy Parker in pooh-poohing Pooh, to say the least). In any case, the shift seems to move us away from more difficult emotions, making it an easier recommend to such younger kids as Priya and Darth.
The novel’s conclusion aside, I found it mining rich territory. Once you begin thinking of them, the ‘Toys’ section in the Impossible Library begins to overflow: Pooh, of course, but also The Velveteen Rabbit, The Mennyms, The Mouse and his Child – and these examples, like Saunders, delicately explore the idea of life, death and lifelessness. The Land of Neverendings brings with it the sad and beautiful concept of ‘empty’ toys, that have never been animated by a child’s imagination: a disgusting prospect to Smiffy and Hugo, the penguin hoteliers dreamt up between Danny and his mother. In its funnier moments, this novel recalled last year’s Carnegie shortlistee Wed Wabbit, a bitterly funny psychofantasy exploring the deeply felt inventions and attachments of a young child’s interior landscape. Increasingly, though, The Land of Neverendings mines its own territory – imperfectly, but bravely and with rich rewards.