Timeless, resonant, imaginative


CHILDREN'S FICTION: NIAMH SHARKEYreviews Noah Barleywater Runs AwayBy John Boyne David Fickling, pp240. £10.99

THIS FAIRY TALE marks John Boyne’s return to writing for young people. Noah Barleywater Runs Awayis nothing like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, although both books deal with complex adult issues and are written from the child’s point of view.

Instead of dealing with his problems, eight-year-old Noah runs away from them. Taking an untrodden path through the forest, before long he comes across an enormous tree, and meets a helpful dachshund and a hungry donkey that point him in the direction of a toyshop.

Stepping inside it hadn’t been Noah’s intention, but once inside he meets a most unusual toymaker. The shop is surreal: floorboards jump around as you go to step on them, there is a tightly wound self-conscious clock named Alexander, and Henry the wonderful talking door. “ ‘Apologies, apologies all,’ said the door, pressing itself firmly into the wall in front of him. ‘I got talking to the clock and quite lost track of time. He never stops when he gets going, does he?’ ”

In a wooden box Noah finds puppets the old man’s father, Poppa, had made long ago. Each puppet has a story to tell, and it’s a story of adventure, wonder and broken promises. There is a cast of wonderful characters: Mrs Shields the teacher, Mr Wickle the running coach, the Prince, Mr Quaker and Dr Wings. Boyne is expertly in charge of the puppet strings, and he leaves a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow. It’s only near the end that everything falls into place. We find out why Noah has run away and learn the identity of the puppet maker. Young readers may find the former easier to discover; the latter is more elusive.

Oliver Jeffers has delicately drawn 14 pen-and-ink washes inside, a visual set of crumbs to follow. He has avoided depicting the characters, and much is left to the imagination. His cover art and the portrait of John Boyne on the back flap are wonderful.

Boyne writes from a child’s perspective about the reality of losing someone close. Noah knows his mum is sick, and he wants to be told the truth: “I’m eight! I want to know what’s going on.’’ Boyne describes emotions in times of trauma, when talking about dying he says: “The word itself is as nothing compared to the meaning.”

When Noah’s father skirts around the seriousness of her illness, Noah feels a great rage build up inside him: “It was like a hurricane of anger, starting in the pit of his stomach, twisting and turning, collecting bits of fury and pieces of temper as it whirled around.’’

Noah Barleywater Runs Awayis timeless and so imaginative. I don’t know how Boyne does it, but his story is incredibly resonant. The image of Noah and his mother sharing their first sunrise together is incredibly moving. She wants them to share this memory together, so that when he sees the dawn break in the future he will be reminded of her. “You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the dawn break over the forest.’’ The image of his mother alone on the fence, her arms stretched wide embracing the dawn, is extraordinary. It made me think of moments we spend with the people we love, memories you don’t realise are so important. This is a tale about growing up, growing old and saying goodbye to those we love. Although there are sad moments, the coda ending is uplifting. At this story’s heart is a startlingly original idea. When you come to the end you smile with realisation – oh, but of course.

I don’t want to give too much away: you just have to find out for yourself.

Niamh Sharkey is a writer and illustrator of picture books. Her latest book, On the Road With Mavis and Marge, has just been published by Walker Books