|Jacket design by FORT|
I'm continuing to review some books that have been on my shelves far too long, having taken the chance of a lengthy car journey to listen to the audiobook of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. (I bought a physical copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop and the audiobook from Audible via Amazon. The audiobook, read by McGuire herself, is excellent, although Dr Bleak's signature whisper of a voice does at times make him a little hard to follow when driving!)
In this, the second part of her Wayward Children series, McGuire tells the other side of the story she began in Every Heart a Doorway (my review here). I won't say too much about that in case you haven't read it, but EHAD featured twins Jacqueline and Jillian - Jack and Jill ("because our parents shouldn't be allowed to name children") and their adventures at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children. Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells more about the two and about their time in the world known as The Moors, under the care, respectively, of the strange Dr Bleak and the commanding Master. It forms a whole with the earlier book and I think the two are best read together.
McGuire has written more recent books about the Home and the Wayward Children, but moving onto other characters and with a slightly different focus. Here, though, we have an almost clinical dissection of lives, of parenting and of the weight of expectations, the story going back to Jack and Jill's parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott. Despite a disclaimer that the story hasn't actually started yet, McGuire devotes nearly a third of the book to this complacent, insufferable pair, showing how their sheer conventionality, their refusal to admit wonder to their kids' lives, above all their sheer stuffiness, warps and forms the two girls, laying the foundations for what will occur after. There are perhaps shades of the Dursleys here though I think McGuire writes with much more psychological grip.
Indeed, she writes wisely throughout and shows, I think, a deep understanding of children: appropriately, the atmosphere reminded me of writers such E Nesbit and CS Lewis who - whatever their other failings may be - understand and glory in the differences between adults and children/ young adults, and take the latter seriously. This book is, McGuire is, on their side (something that shines through all the books in this series).
I'm not going to try and précis the book because it speaks for itself, but while telling an exciting story (you find a hidden doorway in your house and go through it to a world of monsters! A world of werewolves, vampires and mad scientists! A world where you can be yourself!) McGuire also teases out the damage done by expectations and just how hard that may make finding "yourself". While the Moors may ostensibly be a place of freedom from a certain sort of adulthood, there is Authority there and it happily, greedily, feeds on what is presented to it. So Jack and Jill are set on their way well before they cross that threshold, past that notice saying "BE SURE". The story thereafter is one of McGuire teasing out how the little faults and fractures between the sisters grow, are worked on by events and undermine their relationship, their unity, until... well, until things happen.
It's a short book - all of the books in this series are - and McGuire impressively draws on our knowledge of genre conventions to save having to spell out what could otherwise take a great deal of space. In a sense the Moors (like the others worlds visited by the Wayward Children) are narrative come alive, the book referencing films, novels, poems and art to give a much clearer impression of the place than mere words might but also to prefigure how things may go in the story. This saves a lot of explanation, yet the book remains novel, fresh and compelling.
After reading Every Heart a Doorway it's good to explore one of the worlds in more detail. In the next book, Beneath the Sugar Sky, McGuire develops this idea in a very different sort of world, also making a major theme of this series - diversity - more explicit.
But that's for another review: watch this space.