‘People aren’t usually at their best when they make wishes. Making a wish is like saying, “I can’t deal with anything, I give up, somebody bigger come along and solve it all instead.”’Verdigris Deep begins with three children — Ryan, Chelle and Josh — stuck in Magwhite, an “almost-place” where they definitely shouldn’t be. There’s nothing special about this slightly disreputable suburb, but the cloud of forbiddenness hanging over it is more than enough to make it exciting. So Ryan, Chelle and Josh hang out in Magwhite without their parents’ knowledge, only one summer evening they’re unlucky enough to miss their bus back — and they know that calling home to be picked up would mean Big Trouble. Just when Ryan and Chelle are starting to despair, Josh, the boy they both idolise, comes up with a solution: to steal coins from a nearby wishing well so they can afford the fare on another bus home.
The plan works like a charm, only with one big “but” — the well is inhabited by a wish-granting spirit, and stealing the Well Spirit’s coins means that the three children must now help her grant those wishes. Just when they’re starting to get used to the creepiness of the spirit’s appearances, they begin to realise there’s nothing uncomplicated about their task: even when the wishes they’re granting are as seemingly straightforward as helping someone win a Harley-Davidson, there’s more to them than meets the eye.
This book! For the first hundred pages or so, I could just about close my eyes and convince myself that I was reading a Diana Wynne Jones novel. I know that the last time I read Frances Hardinge I compared her to Terry Pratchett, and part of me worries slightly that this will sound like I’m saying Frances Hardinge doesn’t have her own style. So to clarify, she absolutely does: what I really mean is more like, “WHEEEE, Frances Hardinge does pretty much the same things my absolute favourite authors do, the things that make me love them so much, so of course I love her too.”
(Jenny, have you read Frances Hardinge? Even if you don’t fall in love with her stuff to the same extent I’m falling in love, I’d absolutely love to hear what you think.)
In case you didn’t get that from my attempt at a plot summary, Verdigris Deep is a dark and unsettling novel. Some of that is down to the atmosphere and to creepytastic details like warts that turn into eyes in Ryan’s hands, Chelle’s uncontrollable spouting of nearby wishers’ thoughts, or appearances by well spirits with fountains for eyes. But the sense of unease that permeates Verdigris Deep is mostly down to psychological factors, and especially to the nuance and emotional realism that Hardinge embeds into the story.
This brings me to what I loved the most about Verdigris Deep: at its core, this is a novel about children making sense of the fact that adults have messy and complicated emotional lives. They don’t always know what they want, they don’t necessarily have it all figured out, and they often lack the ability to step in and make everything better for either themselves or the people around them — sometimes they are the ones who want “somebody bigger [to] come along and solve it all instead.” Wishes are an excellent vehicle for exploring this: the children start out by assuming that there’s nothing uncomplicated about an adult getting whatever they wished for, but as they unpeel the several layers that make a wish, this notion is quickly dispelled. And of course that this realisation is unsettling: note, for example, the “plea in [Ryan’s] voice” in the first of the two quotes I share at the end. The children don’t necessarily want to know that adults grapple with uncertainties and vulnerabilities of their own, only coming to terms with this reality is an inescapable part of the process of growing up.
Another theme the novel does a fabulous job of exploring is having power over people — what you do with it, how you handle it, how you prevent yourself from becoming the sort of person who’ll exploit other people’s vulnerabilities for your own gain. Not all of the children navigate this successfully, and although Hardinge makes readers sympathise with Josh’s own fears and how these feed into his need for control, the result is still very disconcerting. Add to this a thoughtful examination of the trio’s friendship dynamics and how they have the potential to bring out the worst (but also the best) in one another, and of course I was completely won over.
In sum, recommended to anyone who enjoys children’s books that get down to the business of examining all the messiness that is part of being human, while telling a deliciously creepy and entertaining story at the same time. I can’t wait to read the rest of Hardinge’s work.
Bits I liked:
‘Anyway, the bad stuff all came back, but much, much worse. Everything around me was terrifying and hurt. I couldn’t bear people, not even the kind ones. I couldn’t bear voices, or the smell or sound of cars, or the shapes of buildings. There didn’t seem to be anything in the world worth the pain of stepping outside my door, so I decided I wouldn’t anymore. And then I got rid of my door, so the world wouldn’t know where to come knocking.’They read it too: The Book Smugglers, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Bookshelves of Doom
Ryan felt as if she was opening a wary hand to show them her soul, soft and vulnerable as a baby chick. It was awful to watch.
‘You don’t have to tell us anymore,’ he said, unable to keep the plea out of his voice.
‘Unless it makes you feel better to talk,’ Josh added quickly.
‘I wished that the world out there would just go away and leave me alone. Well, it did. The world couldn’t get in, and I couldn’t bear to go out. But it’s been years now and I’m going to put in a new door. I’ve picked it out from a catalogue — it’s red. And look! Here I am with people in my house, for the first time in two years!’ She grinned suddenly. ‘I think I’m allowed to take back my own wish, aren’t I?’
‘I don’t think anybody knows what wishes are. Because I think they’re… I think they’re sort of like conkers.’
‘I mean, there’s the green prickly bit outside, and there’s the real solid conker inside. I think wishes are a bit like that. There’s an outer bit which is what the wish seems to be, but there’s another bit inside which is kind of the real wish. And…’ This was the hard bit. ‘And I don’t think when most people wish, they really know what they’re wishing. It’s like they only see the green spiky outer bit.’
Chelle looked confused, and Ryan talked more quickly to stop his ideas escaping him.
‘OK, look. The shell bit of the wish might be, “I wish I had a Harley-Davidson.” And Will really thought he wanted a Harley-Davidson, but he didn’t, only in a way. I mean… 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”.’
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.