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The Twite stuff

Of the children's writers who came to prominence in the 1960s, few have remained as entertainingly idiosyncratic as Joan Aiken…

Of the children's writers who came to prominence in the 1960s, few have remained as entertainingly idiosyncratic as Joan Aiken. With over sixty young people's books published in a variety of genres, she this year celebrates her 75th birthday, an event marked by the appearance of this new title in her Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence and by the welcome reissue in paperback format (Red Fox, £4.99 each in UK) of the eight earlier volumes in the series. It is an excellent opportunity for anyone unfamiliar with her work to make her acquaintance.

While at first glance it might seem that Aiken's Willoughby Chase novels belong in the historical fiction category, they really deal with what might have been rather than with what really was. She herself has described how her "fanciful, looking-glass" approach to history in these books rests on a set of suppositions, the primary one being that the Hanoverian succession to the English throne had never occurred: the Stuart dynasty had continued, firstly in the person of James III who had become king in 1832. It is this view of an alternative, totally hypothetical "history" which allows Aiken's imagination to soar so audaciously.

The most immediate manifestation of Aiken's inventiveness is to be seen in her plots. These are wild, intricate farragos in celebration of improbability, involving the skilled manipulation of a large cast of colourful characters and held together by a style which is a blend of the humorous, the satirical, the parodic and the melodramatic. Chance, luck and coincidence are accorded significant roles in these narratives in a manner frequently reminiscent of Dickens or Hardy, though neither of these has quite the Aiken degree of recklessness. There is a further Victorian influence in her fondness for exploiting the surreal possibilities when the totally logical confronts the totally nonsensical.

Among the numerous personages who flit in and out of Aiken's stories there is one who is a special triumph of imaginative creation. This is the redoubtable Dido Twite, whom we first meet as a child of eight or nine in Black Hearts in Battersea and whose further adventures we trace in Night Birds on Nan- tucket, The Stolen Lake, The Cuckoo Tree and Dido and Pa. She does not appear at all in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and only peripherally in Is and Cold Shoulder Road, but now returns in a central role in Limbo Lodge in a story which, while placed chronologically between The Stolen Lake and The Cuckoo Tree, can be read independently. Time has done nothing to diminish the brash, lippy charm of our young Cockney friend, though there is now a perceptible maturing process to be witnessed as well. Endowed with a virtuoso idiolect which is part total fabrication and part a clever re-working of 18th-century thieving cant, Dido bounces off the page, complete with favourite oath ("Croopus!") and swaggering self-assurance.

The resourcefulness which "far away, long ago in the streets of Battersea" had seen her through many a testing situation is once again to the fore in the more exotic, though equally hazardous, setting of Aratu, a Pacific island where she now finds herself contending with human, animal, natural and supernatural forces.

In structural terms, Limbo Lodge follows - with a fair degree of wandering en route - the motif of the quest. Dido's reason for being on Aratu is to find and escort home Lord Herodsfoot, King James's roving ambassador, whose principal anthropological passion is to scour the world for new and interesting games to keep his master amused. Her search, initially complicated by such irritations as pearl-snakes and stingmonkeys, becomes increasingly perilous when her jungle trek takes her to the heart of the island's murky political circumstances. Games, as she comes to realise, can sure cause a lot of trouble, not least in precarious post-colonial situations.

But it is not only Dido who is on a mission of discovery. Inextricably bound into her experiences is the beguiling figure of young Dr Talisman, about whom it can safely be said that he is not everything that he at first appears.

Talisman's search is in the mythic tradition of the child who seeks and is eventually reunited with the long-lost parent, an odyssey which is here related to such effect that Aiken manages to subvert the whole genre of such stories while investing this particular one with real feeling and poignancy. As Dido might well express it, these are "mighty havey-cavey" matters.

In the earlier Is, a character called Dr Lemman, in the context of explaining why many adults dislike children, suggests that this may be because of envy: children "have so much energy, imagination, hope, enjoyment." For those, of whatever age, lucky enough to embody such qualities Aiken's novels will provide the perfect reading.

Robert Dunbar lectures in English at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin