The Black Book of Secrets, F. E. Higgins

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Every year, I determine to teach at least one text which is new to me that year – which with a shrinking pool to choose from at GCSE becomes harder year-one-year – and that is why I have stumbled upon F. E. Higgins’ The Black Book of Secrets.

It is an odd little book – and most definitely intended for the younger side of the Young Adult spectrum. The conceit is that this is essentially a ‘found manuscript’, written by Ludlow Finch himself rather than Higgins and found, pieced together and glued by Higgins’ narrative imagination. It is an unusual conceit – albeit in keeping with the Gothic genre and used in a very literary sense by Graeme Macrae Burnett – and an interesting feature. It’s going to be useful to explore distance and narrative point of view from a teaching point of view. I’m not sure how much it added to the reading experience.

We first meet our protagonist, Ludlow Fitch, a destitute street urchin and pickpocket, in a suitably macabre and sinister setting: an underground basement of the tooth puller Barton Gumbroot as he and Fitch’s parents sought to extract and sell his teeth:

They came close to succeeding in their evil quest. Ma was struggling with a buckle around my ankle, her hands shaking from the previous day’s drinking, while Pa was trying to hold me down. Barton Gumbroot, that loathsome monster, was just hovering with his gleaming tooth-pull, snapping it open and shut, open and shut, tittering and salivating.

For a ten or eleven year-old, this would be deliciously macabre!

Ludlow Fitch manages to escape and ends up in the village of Pagus Parvus. With a little basic GCSE Latin, a broad familiarity with toponymy – and a passing familiarity with Glen Parva, and Wigston Parva in Leicestershire – it didn’t take much to translate it to Little Village. Higgins plays with her own names throughout with a somewhat arch wit: Butchers named Cleaver, booksellers named Leafbinder, a fetid river named Foedus. At times, I found the conceit had a Dickensian charm about it; at other times it felt just a tad contrived and … dare I say self-conscious?

By chance – or fate – he meets the pawnbroker Joe Zabbidou, who has also just arrived in the village, and is taken under his wing as a clerk / apprentice / foster son.

Part of Ludlow’s new duties include transcribing the secrets that the villagers confess to Joe into the eponymous Black Book. It did stretch the suspension of disbelief a little bit that the street urchin had the skills to write as he did: not the language in the memoirs – we can assume a gap of years – but in the Black Book itself which is presented as a contemporaneous record of the confessions. I wonder whether Higgins was challenged over that fact by editors as the odd comment is inserted into the novel to justify Ludlow’s literacy or to point out that Higgins had to correct his spellings.

The world created by Higgins is intriguingly dark and delicious. The villagers confess to a range of crimes – all of which are historically credible – from body snatching to poisoned pies to murder. Each of them, however, are linked to the grotesque corpulent figure of Jeremiah Ratchet, the local despot and villain. And Higgins’ writing and description is wonderful:

It was not easy to describe Joe Zabbidou accurately. His age was impossible to determine. He was neither stout nor thin, but perhaps narrow. And he was tall, which was a distinct disadvantage in Pagus Parvus. The village dated from times when people were at least six inches shorter and all dwellings were built accordingly.

The plot, however, is a little slow. Especially in the middle section. Both Ludlow Fitch and Joe Zabbidou lack agency and, indeed, one of Joe’s rules is that “You must not change the course of things” which makes it impossible for the author to give him agency. We literally wait for the situation to resolve itself. Which it does, again in a deliciously macabre and slightly convoluted way. But there was a lot of waiting.

There is a revelation after the events in Pagus Parvus have reached their conclusion which introduces a slightly more philosophical and metaphysical aspect – as well as opening the door to a series which, I think, now stands at four novels – but somehow without a sense of being wholly satisfying.

Overall, a good book for its intended audience. F. E. Higgins is no Francis Hardinge – although both are published by Macmillan Children’s Books – but the question in terms of giving it a star rating is whether I would recommend it for its intended audience and I would. Indeed, I’m sure I will. And I will probably read the rest in the series because it was a quick and pleasant read – and I am something of a completionist!

Publisher: Macmillan Childrens Books.

Date 7th May 2010

Available: Amazon

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