by Alan Garner
288 pages, Sandpiper
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
This is it squawkers! My 50th review! The past year and a bit have been great fun and I've been forced to read not just for pleasure but critically and (occasionally) out of my comfort zone. In honour of this milestone, I've chosen a book which this year celebrated its fiftieth anniversary (well, it was actually last year but I've only just got round to reading it).
“The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” is a much praised and highly regarded fantasy aimed at children. Though I'm a big fan of Alan Garner's adult books (those looking for a truly beautiful mindf*ck could do much worse than checking out “Thursbitch”), I've never read Garner's debut novel. Fifty years is a long time in children's fiction and just as new toy crazes come and go and are swiftly forgotten, so too are legions of children's authors. Enid Blyton's stories look horribly dated now and only grown men pining for their childhood read “Biggles” stories. Try as they might, no glossy TV adaptation of “Just William” will encourage kids to put down their Jacqueline Wilson books in favour of Richmal Crompton's tales of a byegone era. Has “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” stood the test of time?
Like many children's fantasies, the novel sees two children meet an assortment of wizards, dwarves, elves and goblins as they defeat a terrible evil with the aid of a magical artefact. Unlike C.S. Lewis' tales of Narnia, there is no magical doorway into another world, it is our own world (specifically, Cheshire) that is populated by the weird and wonderful beasties, it's just that they're really good at staying hidden. Colin and Susan, the children in question, aren't terribly well fleshed out characters. At times one gets the impression that they are just names moving through a series of incidents. We aren't told which one is older. We don't learn what they look like. We don't even get a strong sense of their personalities. One of the first things that struck me about the book was “Who the hell are these kids?” Fortunately, before this question started to irritate me I figured it out and saw just how clever a writer Garner is. The children are his readers. By making them faceless and formless, his young readers can better picture themselves in the story. They are “Everyman” or, more accurately, “Everychild”.
Garner's prose is short on description and dialogue-heavy. The action is frequently conveyed through what the characters say and younger readers may find it a challenge to follow the story, especially if they are used to reading more accessible modern writers such as J.K. Rowling or Anthony Horowitz. It must be remembered that Alan Garner's fiction is always challenging, regardless of who he is writing for. As I teenager I found myself scratching my head over “Red Shift” and was left equally perplexed by “The Owl Service”. Garner's books require the reader to concentrate but reward such attentiveness.
Being a children's novel, “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” has more action than his other books. With swordfights, chases, magic and battles the book could never be called boring. The highlight for me was an incredibly claustrophobic sequence where the heroes find themselves crawling through a network of abandoned mines in order to escape from a horde of goblin-like creatures. Garner's depiction of their arduous journey is quite possibly the most intense couple of chapters I have ever read in a book aimed at children. Likewise, the children's flight to Shuttlingslow hill towards the end of the story shows Garner's ability to sustain tension without slowing the pace of the novel. The hideous mara, near-invincible troll-women who stomp after the children during this extended climax are all the more terrifying because Garner does not waste too much time describing them. Like the protagonists, the readers only catch occasional glimpses of them at a distance... just enough to whet our curiosity but not so much as to banish the sense of menace that has been so skilfully built up over time.
“The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” is not an immediately accessible book and younger, less patient readers will find it a struggle to engage with. However, older readers and those who are content not to be spoon-fed will discover a book with it's roots in British mythology that is both thrilling and intelligent. A truly magical and unforgettable book.
Hereward L.M. Proops