Jan 13th 2020
Reading ‘The Ghost Drum’ this week, with a pot of Smoky Russian Caravan tea.
I try to strike a balance on here between reviewing new children’s fiction and older books. So often the debut writers get the glory while the backlist is left on the back burner, and that’s hardly sustainable. There’s certainly something wrong with a world where a novel like The Ghost Drum – which was not only critically acclaimed but Carnegie-winning, a novel that bewitches and delights and disturbs, and what’s more, stimulates curiosity within the heart to read and hear more of its kind – is allowed to go out of print.
I’ve had it on my shelf a little while, but reading Koshka’s Tales last week had whetted my appetite for tales of Czars, Czaritsas and Czareviches, not to mention houses on chicken legs (and, indeed, cat legs), and all their magical intrigues – and at this time of year, how tempting to read about a country where “all the winter is one long night, and all that night long the sky-stars glisten in their darkness, and the snow-stars glitter in their whiteness, and between the two there hangs a shivering curtain of cold twilight”.
In the opening chapter, a baby is rescued from a life of servitude by a witch who lives in a house that walks on chicken legs, but the name ‘Baba Yaga’ is not deployed by Price. Instead, the witch is more likely to be called a shaman, and – as in last year’s smash hit, The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson – she is one of a wide community. There is evidently a weight of reading and research behind this novel, but it is like the driving power behind a storm coming in from the east: invisible and compelling, it sweeps us up in a cloud of telling detail.
I suppose we should be wary of novels that seem so effortlessly to evoke another culture – but then, that’s part of this novel’s effect, in playing so overtly with motifs of Eastern European fairy tale, to make us conscious that the motifs are those of successive tellers, each telling (even the first) being the product of a particular culture. It’s an intelligent novel as well as entertaining, and a couple of times, passing comment on events, the storyteller bares a set of sharp teeth. (It is, after all, the same black cat chained to an oak tree that we heard from last week.)
I must say, Jackanory missed a trick in not televising this story back in 1987. I think Helen Mirren would have had a blast telling this one: its icily despotic villains, moral and ingenious heroes, the totally convincing people caught in-between, and the stirring theme of human capacity to transcend oppression. Perhaps it’s not too late for Radio 4 to produce a version (has there even been a novel for children on Book at Bedtime)? And indeed, it might be more suitable reading after the watershed as it proceeds – the deceptive lightness of the storytelling does not preclude some bloody violence and ghostly moments.
I’m very excited to have happened across a sequel at the start of this month. There’s nothing unsatisfying about a short novel when it has the richness of The Ghost Drum, but it’s like the song the witch sings to her apprentice here, which gives the girl all she needs in one year to grow to a young woman of twenty. Afterwards, it’s necessary for her to feast on black bread, herrings, long-stored oranges and more, the table so crammed that the cups are balanced over the edge. Any reader of The Ghost Drum will finish with the same ravenous appetite for more of the kind.
A new edition, now available – with three sequels!
I began this blog by saying that The Ghost Drum and its sequels were not currently available – but in preparation for this blog piece, I discovered that is not quite true. The books are currently being self-published, both as paperbacks and e-books, so you have no excuse not to read them.
On the other hand, come on Faber, get your act together!
Meanwhile, Susan Price’s author website looks like a real treasure trove. Let’s both discover it this week.
Dr. Nick Campbell is the keeper of the Impossible Library blog about children’s books old and new, and has written diverse short fiction, articles and reviews for readers of Obverse Books, Pearson Education and The International Wizard of Oz Club, among many others. For a long time, he blogged about bookish matter on A Pile of Leaves.
His PhD was awarded for his thesis ‘Children’s Neo-Romanticism: The Archaeological Imagination in British Post-War Children’s Fantasy’ in 2018.
His ‘Silver Archive’ monograph on Children of the Stones is due to be published by Obverse Books in 2020.
Get in touch via email (Nicholas.m.campbell(@)gmail.com) or Twitter: @lifeinleaves