Archive for the ‘Aiken, Joan’ Category

The Shadow Guests (Joan Aiken)

This isn’t, perhaps, the most inspiring of beginnings, but I started this blog more than a week ago and haven’t yet managed to make a single post. Procrastination is a dreadful habit. So, while this isn’t Book #1 of 2010, it is Book #1 as of this blog.

I’ve read a couple of Joan Aiken’s books before, on the insistence of a friend, though never came across any of her work as a child. Perhaps that’s why I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed by Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket, though I did enjoy The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. These books just weren’t written for adults; and while I found her details of England in a parallel ‘Victorian’ era — in which Victoria isn’t queen — remarkably inventive and delightful, the books lacked emotional depth and truly engaging characters.

That isn’t precisely the problem I had with The Shadow Guests. Set in England of the late 1970s, the story tells of Cosmo Curtois, who has had to leave Australia and join a boarding school near Oxford, spending weekends with his Cousin Eunice Doom at an ancestral property. At first, we don’t exactly understand why Cosmo’s life has been turned inside-out so peremptorily; all we know is that it has something to do with what happened to his mother and brother. It takes a chapter or so of Cosmo struggling to settle in at school and with Cousin Eunice before the story comes out; as Cosmo learns, to his horror, the family is under a curse dating from Roman Britain, under which the eldest son is always fated to die in battle and his mother in turn of grief. Cosmo’s mother and elder brother Mark have disappeared a couple of months previously; where they are and what has happened to them is a mystery. And as if it weren’t bad enough that Cosmo has to deal with his loss and his new knowledge of the curse, he’s also being shadowed by strange ghostly people who follow him about on his weekends home from school.

This could come across as daft, but it doesn’t. In itself, the plot is intriguing and the tale quite compelling. And Aiken certainly writes deftly enough of Cosmo’s anger at being singled out and bullied by his classmates and of his increasing comfort in the new country home that soothes every injury he suffers at school. It’s not a plot divorced from the realities of loss, of exile, of homecoming, of fears of the unknown, of unjust treatment, of uncertainty, despite its fantastic elements.

So it’s not with the ghost story and the curse themselves that I have problems; it’s with Aiken’s treatment of them. Ultimately, this isn’t complete fantasy. It’s a real world situation, into which certain supernatural elements intrude, disrupting real world lives and emotions. I’ve read other books of that sort–Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, for instance–and Aiken seems to break one cardinal rule. The problem is Cousin Eunice.

She’s supposed to be a mathematician (and it is telling that I automatically wrote “supposed to” there). That would imply a sense of the rational, of logic, of reason. Yet, when Cousin Eunice discusses the family curse and, in the end, Cosmo’s otherwordly visitors, she is maddeningly willing to believe anything, just about anything. There is a cursory look at how things might work in ways we don’t really understand, talking of theories and of people who are able to do things science can’t quite explain, but this doesn’t do anything to convince me of the truth of the book’s fiction; it just makes me think Cousin Eunice is dreadfully gullible and Joan Aiken in too much of a hurry to properly justify the world of the book to the reader. Because that seems to be Cousin Eunice’s function; she’s an embodiment of logic and the mouthpiece for Aiken’s fictional logic. It’s another matter that the logic of fantasy must be demonstrated, not told, to be convincing and Aiken, unlike Pearce and Farmer, doesn’t seem to fully understand this.

It may be, of course, that science, physics and mathematics in particular, in the 1970s were so woo-woo as to verge on barmy, and Cousin Eunice’s theories are representative of those going around in scientific circles at the time; but if I start believing that, I’m apologising too much for Aiken’s hurried writing.

She’s also just too detached from the situation, too stiff-upper-lip to really develop the lows of the psyche when she has to, though she lets them into this book. Death happens, but is passed over very quickly; and the joy of life, in the process, also ends up becoming merely a sort of formal pleasure.I’d like to put this grey, verging on colourless, tone down to¬† the chief protagonist¬† trying to repress all the pain he feels, but it’s difficult to assert this as valid. It just seems as if Aiken wanted to avoid discussing some things in any detail; and her rather polite prose doesn’t lend itself to such discussion anyway, though it’s perfect for recounting a rational, quiet conversation and matter-of-factly describing a scene. Unfortunately, the outlandish visions Cosmo has aren’t matter-of-fact. And neither is the haunting bare outline of this ultimately disappointing novel.


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