No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, June 24, 2010

2010/53: Verdigris Deep -- Frances Hardinge

Ryan pulled out one of the sweetcorn cans and hefted it to shoulder height, but the muscles in his arms seemed to have gone slack. What was he hoping to do, scare them away like stray dogs? The trolleys juddered their plastic child seats with a wet paddling sound and jangled their chains. Ryan was reminded of a snake's rattle. Feeling sick, he decided to come quietly.
Ryan's mother and father noticed nothing as their only son was taken into custody by a host of supermarket trolleys and herded to the far side of the car park. (p. 158)

Verdigris Deep is set somewhere in suburban England. Three kids (Chelle who doesn't know how to be bad, Ryan who is too smart and perceptive for his own good, Jake the cool kid) miss a bus, and the only way they can get home from the dodgy, edgy village of Magwhite (it's the usual story with saver-ticket restrictions) is to fish some coins out of an old wishing-well. Clearly they have not been reading the right kind of books, and do not realise that No Good Can Come Of It.

No Good swiftly ensues. Ryan ends up seeing more than he wants to; Chelle finds herself verbalising the thoughts of strangers; Jake makes televisions, lightbulbs, anything electrical malfunction. Also, they seem to have ended up in the business of granting wishes: there's a strict economy of wish-granting, and because they took the coins they've incurred the debt, the wishes made and paid with those coins.

This is a very damp book. Well-dwelling spirits do tend to have an affinity for water. It's also a book about the nature of wishes, and how even when people make wishes they don't necessarily know what they want. (Chelle says that wishes are like conkers -- the green spiky bit is all that people see, but the real wish, the hard inner core, might be quite different. Will really thought he wanted a Harley-Davidson, but he didn't ... that was just the green, spiky bit of the wish. Inside there was this shiny nut bit of wish. Which was 'I wish I was the kind of person who had a Harley-Davidson'. (p. 221)) People change, and wishes can be granted in unexpected ways.

Verdigris Deep reminded me more than anything of mid-period Diana Wynne Jones: key resonances included the contract between adults and children ("if she would not treat them as children, why should they treat her like an adult?" p.175), the Sorcerer's Apprentice-style escalation of small lies and misdeeds, the adult undercurrents seen but not necessarily understood by the children (I was especially taken with Ryan's mum, the 'unofficial biographer' who is revealed as a huge fan of the people whose lives she writes about), and the shifting balance between the three juvenile protagonists. There are some stunning images in here, and some very eerie writing (The letters were bitter and funny and there were holes of unsaid where you could feel the demons breathing. (p.328)): and some passages so dark that many (not just children) will find them unsettling.

It is also extremely funny, and there are feral shopping trolleys. Very highly recommended.

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