If anyone enjoyed my Puffin post a few weeks ago and is hoping for more about older children’s books, do not fear: I’ve been reading plenty of terrific stuff from past times (books by the likes of Jan Mark, Betsy Byars and Maurice Gee) and I look forward to sharing them with you. On the other hand, I had completely miscalculated my own blog schedule for discussing the Carnegie Award (my watch was fast: I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works) and if I talk about a novel a week until mid-June I will only just cover the shortlist before one of the authors lifts the trophy (or puts on the crown or accepts their medal: I really have no idea). So, for the next few weeks, it’s going to be living authors all the way.
That said, there’s more than a little ghostly overtone to the shortlist this year. It’s not unvisited territory for the Carnegie, either: previous winners have confronted the monstrous emotions of grief and mortality, made friends (and family) of the undead, unearthed bodies from prehistory, taken bereaved children on a crime caper, and way back in 1973, made a comedy of a 17th century apothecary’s arrival in an age of washing machines, radios and chemist shops. So far this year, however, the voices of the dead seem inescapable and manifest in vared forms.
From the 1950s to 80s, ghosts were a major presence in children’s literature. Armada published fifteen eponymous anthologies of spooky tales, and there was still appetite enough for Haunting Tales, The House of the Nightmare and Small Shadows Creep (to name just three) from Puffin, as well as collections from Beaver, Magnet and Lions. There were ghosts in novels by John Gordon, Penelope Lively and Joan Aiken, to say nothing of the Green Knowe series. As well as appealing to young readers’ taste for sensation, ghosts seem to offer a literary bridge into themes of history, family and the soul. Not that all ghost stories are about the spirits of the departed, of course – they can just as often be about the world of rationality being broken into by spectres of sheer unreason. They might just be there to show us how mere words on the page can make the body shudder and shake.
Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows makes fairly comprehensive use of the undead. When Makepeace is a child (in a Puritan community in 17th century London, if you’re wondering about the name) she first encounters the dead as nightmarish spirits, desperately trying to invade her and hold onto life. Thankfully, her mother seems to know plenty about the matter: the dead are like drowners, she explains, and are to be pitied but also kept strictly at bay. Sharpen a stick, she tells Makepeace, or you may find yourself taken over. London is a place seething with the unquiet living, however, and when Makepeace is barely a young adult, an encounter with mob violence changes her life with brutal suddenness.
Now Makepeace finds herself a kitchen maid – and to all intents and purposes, a prisoner – of the queer house of Grizeways. The noble Felmotte family have some strange secrets and traditions which directly concern Makepeace’s aptitude for the uncanny. As the novel unravels, with all sorts of deceptions and desperate gambits, Hardinge introduces ever more variety in the world of ghosts: the desperate, the inhuman, the half-destroyed, the hardened and the peculiarly verbose. What will they do to Makepeace, and in some instances, what can she do for them?
With this imaginative complexity, therefore, Hardinge makes full use of children’s literature’s peculiar flexibility: to combine a satisfying exploration through all manner of philosophic themes with a thrilling adventure novel. In order to succeed in her quest – in order, in fact, to survive in a universally violent world – Makepeace is obliged to make a full enquiry of herself, her times and the rules of the world beyond them (whether interior or exterior to them both). In what sense, Hardinge asks, can we speak of a memory as ghostly, or a hope, or a stranger, or a façade, or a mentality? Without claiming this as an especially political novel (especially given Makepeace’s estrangement from either side of England’s civil war), the brilliantly mad secret of the Felmottes even resonates with the language of “a dreadful spectre haunting Europe”.
Sometimes it’s a shame, I think, that Makepeace is so disengaged from the politics of the country, much as it makes sense for someone in her circumstances, always living at one remove from society. Her world is painstakingly evoked and the novel is deliciously (and just as often, repulsively) atmospheric: from the not-quite-town of Poplar to the lonely marshes, into every strata of life in the house of Felmotte and thereafter off out desperately across across the fields to lonely cottages, you are in Makepeace’s shoes, breathing the air about her, feeling the nearness of death and the madness of the age. There are also insights to be gained about women in this mad world: authors of their own destiny, in the case of the “she-intelligencers” to the King, or author of the end of the world, in the role of prophetess. Then there are the accusations of witchcraft for trespassers beyond respectability: lives of the powerless rewritten by others, on a charge of illegitimate power. Interestingly, although this novel of possession and infiltration has an aura of sexual violence, Hardinge chooses to keep that firmly as subtext.
Though they evoke different eras, Hardinge’s adventure most reminded me of Joan Aiken’s Wolves chronicles, particularly having read The Cuckoo Tree only a couple of months ago, which moves from secret plotting to desperate venture (with witches!). Like Aiken, Hardinge is unafraid to spiral outward from incident to incident. The last few chapters are particularly frenetic, and perhaps I missed the scene-setting and mystery of the novel’s opening. Perhaps it was not even the change in tone, but the scale of the book – it ends with a bang, but if you’re going to do that, I believe you might as well go the whole hog and shove a packed St Paul’s Cathedral into the river. That said, I delighted in certain set-pieces: each one perfectly founded on the elegant logic of the novel’s cosmogony, no character safe and no loopholes provided. With its smoky, shadowy, strange, owl-ridden, blood-splashed, flashing-grinned, dark-windowed, lantern-gleaming, eye-glinting, candle-flickering visual repertoire, this would make an amazing movie.
It is a thoroughly pleasing, perturbing and thought-provoking novel, though: a novel about author-ship and ventriloquism. “… I am nothing but a bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories, given life by somebody else’s mind,” observes a character, at the end of the novel, “But then again, so is a book.” Hardinge reveals that to be a dark art indeed, but also a wonderful, blazing adventure.