'I smelled earth and rock and mushrooms and damp wool and tobaccy and grass and wood smoke and sweet water.' (p 20)
Lost parents galore
In terms of recently produced children's fantasies, we seem to have hit peak season for parent hunting. Children searching out and rescuing a missing or magically captured parent has been a major plot line in an amazingly large number of the books I have enjoyed most recently. And here is another. Synchronicity strikes again. On second thoughts, perhaps it is not altogether surprising. This is rightly a 'classic ' theme of the genre, and an important one psychologically. Children are at a stage of life where they, quite properly, live under the care and protection of their parents*, but this means that they are very attracted by a vicarious adventure in which the power-role is reversed and a child is responsible for saving a parent. Nevertheless, it still has to be said that this story concept is far from original. However, in every other aspect, Juliette Forrest's new book is just about as joyfully and exuberantly original as they come.
A Twist(er) in the tale
Finding a new children's writer who already shows considerable mature writing talent is a cause for great celebration. So it should be a very big HOORAY for the arrival of Juliette Forest from all who wish to support children's reading. As a debut author she does far more than just promise a substantial contribution to children's literature, she delivers.
Perhaps, though, I should say 'she surely do deliver', because her principal character and her setting, a 'backwoods' farm and its environs, are clearly American. It was initially a surprise to find a Scottish author situating her first children's novel across he Atlantic. But, of course, there is no real reason why she shouldn't. Juliette Forest has clearly done a lot of research, including extensive consultations with US resident relatives, and is very sympathetic to this idiom. Her tale has a completely authentic feel and the context emerges as perfectly suited to the voice of 'sassy' young Twister, which is quite brilliantly caught. It is soon impossible to hear it otherwise. The author captures not only the language of her protagonist, but also the patterns of her young thoughts. She is often quick and smart but at times, too, as yet unaware of all the ways and sayings of the adult world. Twister is highly entertaining and hugely endearing; even when unintentionally funny, we laugh with and not at her.
In fact , despite its fantasy elements, its excitement and its danger, there is no doubt at all that the star of this particular show is Twister herself. And she shines out like the very brightest. More than just a story about magic, this is a story about the thoughts and feelings of a young girl as she gamely faces a difficult period in her life, and pulls through thanks to the sheer force of vibrant life which she embodies. She is so brilliantly drawn that she carries the whole book with her uber-charming mixture of resilience and vulnerability. It is quite simply one of the very best creations of a first person narrator in contemporary children's fiction, and one that, written in 'conventional' past tense, is actually far more immediate and involving than many of the first person, present tense narrations that seem to have become so faddy of late.
Another particularly recommendable feature of the book is Twister's (and hence the author's) considerable sensitivity to the natural world. This should do a good deal to help young readers develop a similar awareness . Delightfully, Twister is a girl with highly developed sensory perception. Almost every moment of her life is full of sights, sounds, and particularly smells, and her continual evocation of them pulls the reader into her world in a quite wonderfully vivid way. The magic, too, which initially lurks on the periphery of Twister's life, but intrudes more and more violently as the story progresses, is very much a magic of nature, of forest and river and storm. Both good and evil draw power from the 'souls' of life (and death) which surround them. And in her evocation of this magic, the strength and originality of Juliette Forrest's imagination is very much to the fore. When Twister draws on these powers and is temporarily transformed into a wolf, a river or a storm, the descriptions are truly magical, lyrical, almost poetic. But the evil in the tale is chilling too, including that of some human characters, as well as of the fantastical villain, White Eye.
Although there is warmth and love in Twister's young world (largely brought there by her splendidly characterised Aunt Honey) there is much heartache and loneliness too. She is a brilliantly rich and rounded character. In the second half of the story, when the fantasy element kicks in with a vengeance, there are shocks and thrills aplenty too. This is a real page-turner, despite, indeed because of, the focus on Twister's character and development.
And if, at the climax of the story, the esoteric workings of the story's magic system verge on being rather obscurely complex, the outcomes are so totally satisfactory, in both sentiment and actual result, that this matters not at all. We are so rooting for Twister by this stage that our empathetic sharing of her achievements (and her newfound acceptance of realities in her life) are a heartwarming thrill.
Juliette Forrest's rich writing features a kind of verbal leitmotif, a long string of descriptors, linked only by a series of 'and's. This may seem a simple construct, but in her hands it is a recurring delight. Often olfactory in its subject matter, it acts as a verbal equivalent of a scratch-and-sniff card, releasing a flood of vivid Proustian associations. Like a musical 'ear worm' it insinuates itself into the brain and becomes a recurrent theme of the reading. It is a stamp. A signature. It says Juliette Forest, and it says Twister in an idiosyncratic and most endearing way. And this is writing that most certainly deserves to be signed. If such things can smell (and I think perhaps thy can) this story smells of hardship and resilience and spirit and family and warmth and nature and darkness and loss and humanity and life. It sure is swell.
*There are, of course, a minority of children who, through force of circumstance, become real life carers for their own parent. They deserve and need far more understanding and support than, sadly, they sometimes get.