Jun 13, 2013

Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

‘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.’
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.’
‘How?’
‘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”.’
They read it too: The Book Smugglers, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Bookshelves of Doom

(You?)

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14 comments:

bermudaonion said...

Wow, I love your enthusiasm for this book and it's author! You've made me want to read it now.

Bookgazing said...

Yay Ana review! I liked the quote you shared at the bottom abut the woman opening up her vulnerabilities. It is terribly hard to look at those things in other people, which I think is probably why so many of us don't go beyond a certain level of openness and sharing - we know how indelibly that sharing can sit on another person's brain.

interesting to hear there's a character among the friends who abuses power. I feel like you don't get sympathetic characters like that in children's books very often.

And of course this reminds me to read Fly By Night :D

Debi said...

Ooooh, sounds like I had good instincts in putting this one in the top spot when we ordered our choices! It sounds wonderful in all the ways that matter. :)

Ana said...

Yay! SOON YOU WILL HAVE HARDINGE SHELF

Laura said...

This sounds awesome! And if parts of it read like a Diana Wynne Jones book, that can only be a good thing! :)

Joanne said...

This sounds like just the kind of book I've been looking for to read to my son. It sounds wonderful.

Charlotte said...

Thank you for the lovely V book! I enjoyed this one, but I think The Lost Conspiracy is my favorite of hers.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Kathy: Mission accomplished :P

Bookgazing: I thought that quote was really interesting in the context of a child-adult relationship, because it's so scary and unpleasant to have to confront the fact that adults don't necessarily have it all figured out and can be huge emotional messes. And probably it continues to be really hard with, say, an adult child and a parent, because those were the people who we once thought had hung the moon. But I have to say that personally I've never felt that way in the context of a relationship where there is no power differential. Like, of course there's such a thing as boundaries, and it'd be weird to have random strangers tell me their deepest secrets, but as far as people I like and talk to regularly are concerned, I always feel honoured to be trusted, and selfishly I always appreciate anyone revealing their emotional messiness because, well, it makes me feel more normal and less alone. This is probably why Tiny Beautiful Things is turning out to be such a helpful book for me. Anyway, yes, do read Fly By Night :D

Debi: Yes you did!

Ana: You are correct :P

Laura: Exactly! When I say that, it's always the best sort of compliment :P

Joanne: I think it's one of those books children and adults alike will really enjoy, even if for slightly different reasons.

Charlotte: I need to read that soon!

Jenny @ Jenny's Books said...

I never have! I keep getting her mixed up in my mind with Franny Billingsley. Tell you what, I'm going to a book sale this weekend (inshallah) and I will look out for a Frances Hardinge book. Maybe one will turn up and then hooray, I can read her and perhaps love her the way you do.

Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous said...

Wow, I'm not sure anything could impress me more than comparing an author to Diana Wynne Jones AND Terry Pratchett! :D

Charlie (The Worm Hole) said...

This is the review you spoke of on Twitter? Glad you wrote it. I've read just enough of Diana Wynne Jones and several of Pratchett that I think I can see why you might have related Hardinge to both (not that I've read her yet but I love your summary).

I'm so not a blogger said...

Was just thinking that I need to go and buy myself a book to read and this looks like it could be it!

Shonna said...

I've had this on the shelf for a while. But your review has me pulling it out to read sooner. Thanks.

Juan Pazos said...

This was my introduction to Hardinge too. I had read the Smugglers reviews for her other books and picked this up simply because it was the cheapest. I was absolutely astounded. The depth and beauty of the relationships (even when they're conflicted) and the exceptional writing style alone would have made it memorable. I read Gullstruck Island (The Lost Conspiracy) a couple of months ago and I'm sad to say that I was quite underwhelmed. It's still a brilliant book but I didn't get the same feeling of wonder at the acievement that Verdigris gave me.

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