There are adults who read children’s books, and there are adults who don’t. I am one who does, and I tend to reread the books I loved as a child. I do this particularly when I’m feeling ill or depressed but I did have an extended wallow in them when I was pregnant and was rereading Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree while in hospital being induced... On rare occasions I buy children’s books I’ve not encountered before, and I, Coriander was such a book. Yes, the Wenceslaus Hollar engraving on the cover did entice me.
This is how it opens:
It is night, and our old house by the river is finally quiet. The baby has stopped its crying and been soothed back to sleep. Only the gentle lapping of the Thames can be heard outside my window. London is wrapped in a deep sleep, waiting for the watchman to call in the new day.
I have lit the first of seven candles to tell my story by. On the table next to me is the silk purse that holds my mother’s pearls and beside it is the ebony casket whose treasure I am now only beginning to understand. Next to that, shining nearly as bright as the moon, stands a pair of silver shoes.
I have a great many things to tell, of how I came by the silver shoes and more. And this being my story and a fairy tale besides, I will start once upon a time...
Who could resist reading on?
Coriander Hobie is born into happiness and wealth in 1643, daughter of a merchant and a ‘cunning woman’, or healer. When she is six years old she receives a mysterious present, a pair of silver shoes, which her mother forbids her to wear. Coriander disobeys and discovers the shoes will carry her into another, magical realm – the one from which her mother actually originates – now ruled by an evil queen. The experience is so disturbing she puts the shoes away, but her action seems to have terrible consequences and three years later her mother suddenly dies, perhaps at the behest of the fairy queen. Life only gets worse for Coriander when her father remarries a fittingly horrible Puritan stepmother, and she finds herself moving between the ‘real’ world and the ‘fairy’ world if she is to save the people she loves. Solving of the problems of the fairy world allow Coriander to solve those of her own, both obviously and metaphorically.
Dividing the book into seven parts, each dictated by the length of the candle, returns the reader’s attention to the ‘storyness’ of the story (it’s late, I can’t remember any better terms for this) as well as its oral nature, and this along with the first-person narrative (with a nice but not impenetrable flavour of seventeenth-century prose) gives the fairy element plausibility. Gardner stitches traditional fairy-tale motifs – wicked stepmother, absent father, enchanted shoes, a magical doll, dresses, caskets, liquid mirrors – into her narrative in often fresh and clever ways. Events in the fairy world echo those in the real world and this gives the structure of the novel a satisfying heft: both worlds are at the mercy of cruel and fanatic leaders (Oliver Cromwell and Queen Rosmore); the marriage of Tycho and Unwin is linked by a cream dress to that of Coriander’s parents; the eternal winter inflicted by Rosmore is a physical manifestation of the Puritan culture foisted upon the English with its suppression of joyousness as well as Maud's reign of terror in the Hobie household; there are others. The ending binds these two strands even closer together.
I wonder though, when will someone write a novel that’s sympathetic to the Roundheads? They always seem to get a bad press...