Rachel Van Kooij
Whole book read
| Little Island Press is an Irish publisher of quality fiction by Irish and international authors for older children and teenagers. Rachel Van Kooij, as her name suggests, is Dutch-born, but lives in Austria and writes in German. The book being reviewed was first published in 2003 and has only recently become available in an English translation (by Siobhan Parkinson).|
This is a wonderfully well-paced and realised story about a young deformed dwarf who, at the start of the book, is growing up in the Spanish countryside with a father absent for long periods working in the royal court in Madrid.
All changes when the father announces that the family is to up sticks and move to the city to be with him. But he does not want to take Bartoleme with them, fearing the boy will only be ridiculed and be nothing but a source of embarrassment for the family. Eventually he agrees that Bartoleme can come, but only if he remains hidden from view at all times.
The first half of the book concerns this hidden life, and Bartlome’s determination to better himself and prove himself to others by learning to read and write. However, when an accident exposes him on the streets he is spotted by the young princess – the Infanta – who mistakes him at first for a dog, and insists on it becoming her pet plaything.
The back of the eye-catching book jacket shows a scene from Valasquez’ painting Las Meninas, the significance of which becomes cleverly apparent towards the end of a novel which is thought-provoking, moving, entertaining, life-enhancing and powered by a dignified narrative momentum. This is a book that takes the reader beyond their present-day experience and presents them with the issues faced by those who have a handicap or are otherwise physically very different from most other people.
The father is insensitive and unfeeling and has a thuggish streak – there is one upsetting scene of domestic violence – but is never depicted as a pure brute.>>
This book has done something important for me. And it has done it in a way so utterly and compellingly convincing that I shall henceforth consider Marcus Sedgwick a writer of the very highest order. I know others have long held him in that regard. I have admired some books of his, but none has registered that complete sense of satisfaction that you get when you read a book by a master of their trade. Let’s be honest, few books do this completely. Two of my lodestars that I use when I have finished a book I have enjoyed are Robert Cormier and Sonya Hartnett. Yes, I think to myself, this book was good, but was it that good?
I feel very ambivalent about this debut novel. And I think that is largely because it is ambivalent about itself. It is essentially, and in its denouement has the honesty to admit it at last, a zombie novel. A village is making its last stand against the infection that surrounds them. A deliberately knowing but misjudged withholding of narrative information concerning the infected ‘Unconsecrated’ keeps the reader in the dark for far too long. The suggestions that the book is some sort of religious allegory are laid on very heavily.
Make no mistake, this is not an easy scene to write well. So easy to overdo. So easy to underdo. So tempting to be either sensationally vivid or evasively poetic.
Simon and Schuster