“I can’t cope with this,” Tanya’s mother declares at the start of this exceptional debut novel (winner of this year’s Waterstone’s Children’s Book Award), and promptly dispatches her daughter off to stay with the grandmother, in a suitably expansive and derelict mansion.
It is Tanya’s fixation with fairies that has driven her mother to the end of her tether.
And thus is set up a quintessentially English children’s book adventure; child staying with grandmother in slightly spooky house has escapades involving little people.
Now, whilst I am happy to read the classics in this genre, I have to say that a contemporary title of this ilk normally finds me a somewhat resistant reader. But I quickly found myself a thoroughly willing participant in the tale concocted by Harrison – one of fairy glamour and entrapment going back two generations.
The house itself and its principal occupants – Tanya’s grandmother, the groundsman Warwick and his son Fabian (nicely chosen names, these) – evoke just the correct atmosphere. And when the fairy intrusion occurs it happens with such unexpected malevolence as to be completely unnerving and, in the book’s best sequences, as exciting as an episode of 24.
There are occasional lapses of pace (usually when Harrison is attempting to convey narrative information via dialogue) and, quite importantly really, the book’s title is never given proper significance or weighting. Having said that, the sheer power of invention and fluency of story narration carry the reader along in a fashion that makes its winning of the Waterstone’s Award entirely understandable.
Here we have a writer who you just know will go from strength to strength. There are superbly well-realised sequences – in the catacombs of the house, in the surrounding woods – which, in my own reader’s mind I imagined as a TV dramatised adaptation, so visually vivid was the description.
The book has a Prologue and an Epilogue. Its chapters are of just the right length for children to read one (or more) in bed at night. Harrison herself decorates the initial letter of each new chapter, in a style suggesting she might also have contributed excellent narrative illustrations had the publisher been so inclined.