This smart book about a young protagonist taking on dark forces owes a lot to the Harry Potter series. She’s an orphan whose father and mother perished under peculiar circumstances and she now lives with a woman who may or may not be her aunt, but who is certainly rather abusive. Mrs. Rokaby is bad enough but her evil rabbit Bigamist is a real villain!
The characters are rooted in the real world, which makes the time tornados and time traps really work. They’re more magical fantastical than science fiction, and we are very interested in how things are going to play out. (That opening is really tasty and very visual.)
In some ways, we can see the derivation of a lot of the ideas here. In particular, the story reminds us of John Bellairs’ trilogy of books that begins with The House with the Clock in its Walls. The young protagonist of that book (a chubby ten year old) has to track down the clock by solving a mystery, and saves the world thereby. This book is just as complex and just as satisfying, and young Silver (named after her father’s favorite pirate, Long John Silver) is a kid we can really sympathize with and really like. She is just little (sort of like a hobbit) but she has to do a brave thing because it’s the thing to do.
The sacrifices here are real, just as they are in other books (like the Dark is Rising, where young Will risks it all or in the Harry Potter series where people we care about DIE.) The end, where Silver is in a place where there are three suns, speaks of other adventures to come and the sequel is earned, not obligatory.
There are a lot of spooky elements here, most particularly the title “character,” a house so old that it knows many secrets. And for someone like Silver, who can talk to the house, it has answers and advice and cautions. (It sometimes refuses to answer questions altogether, however, which is a problem at times.)
The timekeeper is the novel’s “artifact” and it’s a good one. Everyone wants the timekeeper, but like Silver, we don’t even know what it is until late in the day. It’s only one of the mysteries that pulls us through the story. (Others abound, like what REALLY happened to Silver’s father and who Mrs. Rokaby really is.)
As with all series like this, the writer feels compelled to give characters names that reflect their character. (When you hear a name like ABLE DARKWATER, you can be pretty sure he’s not a nice guy.) Putting that aside, however, there’s a refreshing lack of preciosity here. The tone is pitch perfect. Silver doesn’t waste any time feeling sorry for herself (although she has plenty to feel sorry about) and we like her spirit.
We also like the whole “mythology” of what’s going on here. The time tornadoes and traps and the whole fabric of the space-time continuum that’s being disrupted intrigues us. It’s a new take on a “time travel” sort of movie and smart. The writer takes this “emergency” seriously and as a result, the urgency of Silver’s task is communicated to us. And while much of this book is serious, there are lighthearted moments as well. When the two thugs and their dog break into Tanglewreck and run afoul of both the house and the Bunny, it’s hilarious. (And will remind people of the hijinks in HOME ALONE where the hapless burglars just can’t do anything right.)
(I am a great fan of Winterson’s work—her exquisite 2015 novel, Gap of Time, is based on Shakespeare’s play A Winter’s Tale. Look for a review of it when Summer of the Shakespeare begins next week.