A young balletomane, Clair-de-Lune, lives alone with her austere grandmother, Madame Nuit. Her mother (La Lune) died whilst dancing a dying swan ballet, and she has been mute ever since. Such overtly symbolic names emulate the methods of fairy tale, which sets the mood for this story.
The setting has an historical atmosphere (think Paris, 150 years ago). Clair-de-Lune lives in a very tall, very old building populated by artistes. It also hides a talking mouse, Bonaventure, who dreams of starting his own ballet school, and a magical secret doorway to a monastery by the sea. Here Clair-de-Lune meets Brother Inchmahome, who through sensitive listening and a series of probing questions, helps her to unlock her heart and her voice.
The “Ah, Reader!” style of narration and slight frou-frou factor (silk gloves, a King Charles spaniel called Chouchou, ‘the exquisiteness of a troupe of mice, dancing.’) will estrange a significant proportion of readers. Describing Clair-de-Lune’s lace collared dress, Golds notes: ‘It was’ not perhaps to everyone’s taste’. The same could be said of the book. Those who love ballet will adore hearing about the agonies and ecstasies of ‘The Dance’. But the emphasis on lady-like behaviour and genteel manners will not appeal to girls who like climbing trees or, I suspect, boys.
Bonaventure’s lengthy monologues (all his conversations with Clair-de-Lune are one-sided, after all) create a somewhat verbose read in places. And I couldn’t help thinking that the romantic tale of a talking mouse had been done before (in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux). Golds asserts that ‘no one, to Bonaventure’s knowledge, had ever before’taught classical ballet to mice.’ Which of course put me in mind of Angelina Ballerina. The fascinating minutiae of mouse life (such as toothpick barres and toffee wrapper writing paper) have also been celebrated elsewhere, in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books. However, these familiar elements are fetchingly sewn together.
Golds’ narrative thread is straightforward ‘ the singular problem is Clair-de-Lune’s frustrated desire to talk. But as the story progresses an emotional depth unfolds. Characters who I had feared to be one dimensional reveal themselves to be credibly complex. Through them the powerful effects of loss and of love are perceptively explored. An allegorical message, that love is the most important thing in life, lifts the story to a philosophical plane. Some will read this as a moving exposition of sadness and solitude, laced with poetic metaphor, which is reminiscent of The Little Prince in its profundity. Some will find it all a bit too frilly.