Revisiting our own childhood of library adventure
Magnificent: such is the detail embedded in Aaron Becker’s artwork that not one page will yield all its richness in one “reading”
The books we enjoy most in our childhood and adolescence are often those that stay longest in our reading memories. The truth of this observation is borne out once again in an essay by Dennis O’Driscoll, now published posthumously in The Outnumbered Poet (Gallery Books), a selection of his critical and autobiographical writings. Entitled The Library of Adventure, the essay is a beautifully written testament to “the joys of childhood reading”, a pursuit that for him became “the obsession of an addict in the grip of an uncontrollable urge”.
The affectionate roll-call of writers and books that O’Driscoll singles out for special mention provides rich evidence of a reading apprenticeship that left an indelible mark: his tribute to Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and his acknowledgment of its “dysfunctional grandfather clock, living on borrowed time” as an influence on his own writing are particularly heartfelt. “I may not know what happiness is, but I know it smells very like a newly opened children’s book,” he writes, articulating the sentiments of those who, as adults, still peruse the children’s shelves with eager anticipation.
Difficult as it is to forecast which of the children’s and young-adult books of late 2013 and early 2014 will be recalled in the years ahead by those who first encountered them as early readers, there will surely be a place in some memories for Siobhan Dowd’s The Ransom of Dond (David Fickling, £9.99), one of the most attractively produced works of junior fiction of recent times. Dowd’s death, aged 47, in 2007, brought prematurely to an end a writing career that gave us four highly acclaimed novels – A Swift Pure Cry, The London Eye Mystery, Bog Child and Solace of the Road – in addition to providing the inspirational idea for Patrick Ness’s masterpiece, A Monster Calls. This new title, in its elegance, wisdom and lyricism, provides a poignant coda to these earlier achievements.
Set at some period well beyond time on a remote Celtic island called Inniscaul, this haunting story – more novella than novel, really – comes imbued with the spirit of ancient myth and legend. Dond, the island’s merciless “dark god of the underworld”, has decreed that disaster will befall Inniscaul’s inhabitants if a sacrifice is not made of “the thirteenth child to a woman born” when that child becomes 13. A girl called Darra satisfies, it seems, both requirements, and Dowd’s narrative traces the consequences not just for Darra but for her family and the wider island community.
The harshness of the inward-looking insular environment is reflected in the spareness of Dowd’s prose, which is nevertheless sufficiently powerful to carry her central themes of the workings of fate, of time and, above all, of truth and truth-telling. Pam Smy’s illustrations, in shades of blue, white and black, constitute an integral element of the book’s unforgettable atmosphere.