Books for young readers

Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras has been praised for bringing the “Edwardian age deliciously to life”, but even if you don’t give a damn for Edward or his age, you should read this book. Geras has captured the child’s eye-view of life as a time of vulnerability and miracles with remarkable accuracy, and the utterly convincing voice of the young narrator is nothing  short of magical.

Apricots at Midnight is the story of Aunt Pinny’s girlhood, encapsulated in the patches on her quilt. Aunt Pinny (that’s Penelope Sophia Pintle to you and me) was born in London back in 1904, and began to make the quilt when she was “old enough to hold a needle”, at about five or six.  Sixty-odd years later,  the quilt is now on the guest bed where young Laura sleeps when staying with her aunt while her parents are abroad. Pinny tells the child bedtime stories about the history of the quilt’s patches, and so we hear about Pinny’s mother getting delayed while picking her up from school, about a visit to a cousin in the country, about a meeting with an army Major. All ordinary stories, sans flash-bangs of plot twists and revelations, but so saturated with quiet beauty that you’ll close this book with an ache in your heart for what it means to be very young.  Get this for the sensitive/odd/bookish child in your life–she will hold it close and cherish it for ever and ever.

Oh, and do check out Geras’s website–what an interesting person she is! And she’s written over ninety books for children, teens and adults. Ninety. Ninety. Ninety.

Note:  The book seems to be out of print (WHY?), but you should move heaven and earth to find it. I picked mine up at my library’s bi-annual used book sale, and my heartfelt thanks to the DeRuyter/Diletti family (who wrote their name on the first page) for kindly donating their copy.

***

When I heard about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s children’s fantasy The Conch Bearer (2003), I was quite thrilled.  PoC characters! Indian setting! By an award-winning writer! Divakaruni has won the Pushcart Prize and the Pen Oakland award (amongst others) for her adult fictions, and while I’ve sometimes found myself at odds with her prose and her positions, I have complete faith in her storytelling abilities.

Twelve-year-old Anand works at a tea-stall in modern-day Calcutta, earning a few miserable rupees each day for his mother and younger sister. His father has gone missing in Dubai, and it’s fallen to Anand to support his family.  One day, Anand meets the mysterious grey-bearded Abadhyatta who tells him about a special valley in the Himalayas that houses a brotherhood of wizard healers, who take care of a magic conch. The conch,  stolen by its former Keeper Surabhanu has recently been retrieved, and now must be returned to the valley.  Abadhyatta asks Anand to accompany him on the journey home, as the conch seems to have a special affinity for him. Joining them is a young girl, Nisha.

But the conch has an energy that alerts Surabhanu of its presence when used.  And careful, merely saying the evil one’s name out loud attracts the finger of his attention that periodically sweeps across the city. The conch has a mind of its own and carries its own dangers within–for instance, when Anand holds it, he feels a moment of terrible rage when Abadhyatta takes it back. And when Abhyadatta  goes missing in the early part of their adventure, danger dogs the children along the way. There’s the ape Grishan who speaks half-human language wants the treasure for his master. There’s a mountain rains down boulders and doesn’t let them pass. The only source of help for Anand and Nisha  is a squirrel-like creature Nisha befriends.

Let me get it out of the way–Divakaruni is treading very familiar ground (much of it of the Middle Earth strata) in this book, and the plot feels very derivative at times. The big question: do the India elements juice up the story enough to make it seem fresh?

Divakaruni’s writing is very fluid, and all the technical aspects of the novel are top-notch, but I’d guess that this book will not hold adults who’ve read their  reasonable share of fantasy. As someone who’s had a surfeit of hero-coming-of-age-during-a-quest narratives, the book was too thin to tip me into praise. But The Conch Bearer was written for children, and I think ten-year-olds will, for the most part, dive in eagerly.

What I did find fascinating was the way Divakaruni roots her story in Indian myths–there are some clever intersections that I wish she’d explored in more detail. The squirrel-as-helper, for instance, is a well-loved character in the Ramayana, and I’ve always loved how this myth demonstrates that the humblest of animals deserves compassion and respect. The magic conch itself is said to trace its origins back to the Mahabharata. Divakaruni writes that the Aswini Kumars, physicians to the gods, gave the conch to their sons Nakul and Sahadev, the youngest of the five Pandavas of the Mahabharata. When the two brothers used the conch to bring back the dead at the Battle of Kurukshetra, the conch was taken away from them as punishment. Divakaruni has tapped into an immensely rich seam here, and how I wish she had done more with it.

Note: The Conch Bearer is the first part of a trilogy, but works just fine as a stand-alone novel.

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