This is my second foray into Marcus Sedgwick’s writing: White Crow, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal a couple of years ago was the other.
And this is by far superior, more beautiful, more powerful, more poignant.
This book is shortlisted for the Cilip Carnegie 2013 and tells the tales of Eric and Merle. Tales. Tales of eternal, death-defying love and – above all – the sacrifices we make for those we love; the love of husband-and-wife, lovers, parents-and-children, siblings. Sometimes, Eric and Merle are the protagonists of the story, sometimes they are protagonists of stories within the main story.
It is also a book of tales about tales and the power of stories: written in reverse chronology, tales become stories become myths sustaining and echoing and paralleling each other. There are obvious echoes here of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell in both the cycling of the narratives and the celebration of narrative.
Each individual tale has strengths – some in my opinion are stronger than others. Oddly, the opening and framing narrative of Eric Seven visiting Blessed Isle as a journalist investigating rumours of unnaturally long lives, was the weakest of the seven tales. The writing – in present tense – was languid and relaxed and there was some beautiful phrases. The island is
beautiful. It’s so beautiful, it takes his breath away. It’s not spectacular, it’s not jaw dropping, it’s simply a lovely sight, that makes his heart glad that such places exist. The greys and browns of the rocks, the trees and the wild grass, the sea, waiting for him and only for him; the place is utterly deserted, he can see neither people nor houses.
And when swimming with Merle, Eric
wonders if a few moments of utter and total joy can be worth a lifetime of struggle.
Maybe, he thinks. Maybe, if they’re the right moments.
However, in my view, it is the second half of the book that becomes much more powerful which, oddly, coincides with a shift to the past tense and the story The Painter which opens with these gorgeous lines
On the girl’s seventh birthday, her finest present was not the new smock, nor the carved wooden hare, though she loved those two things very much.
The best thing was not a thing at all, but a permission.
From this tale onwards, Sedgwick moves his narratives up a gear. There are so many elements of the fairy tale in this one – dragons and stolen apples; of the ghost story in The Unquiet Grave which is, in my opinion the most beautifully crafted ghost story I have ever read and the strongest of these seven tales; of the gothic in The Vampire.
The Vampire has an undeniable power to it and it seems that Sedgwick embraces Norse alliterative literature in his own writing as he describes how
The feast flew. Soared into the night like a ravening bird, like a fire flame, like the spread of a plague, a party as wild as the night outside was long.
As a final comment, celebrating the power of language, there is one moment, a small moment, in The Vampire when a Viking skald sings the song of their voyage and Sedgwick says
his tools were words; those mysterious gifts from the gods , and while most men merely learned how to use them, Leif was one of those wizards who had learned the secret of how to make magic with them.