So, I'm going to start this review with a big love letter to my friend Eh!, and then I'll actually talk about this book, so if you want to skip the love-in, that's cool. Eh! mailed me this series when I expressed an almost idle curiosity in it, and I didn't understand until I read it what a powerful act of trust this was. These are her childhood books: the paper yellowed, a crease on the front flap from use, small finger-shaped edges on the back flap, that odd, woody, not-unpleasant smell of old paper, her name written carefully with the looping cursive of young women. I read from an artifact of her younger self, and it almost makes me shake to think that she found me worthy enough to entrust this book to my hands, that she would mail this book across the country to a person she has never seen in the flesh.
I was a bookish girl, which may not come as a huge freaking surprise. I spend my young life stoppered up and angry, unable to find the words that I could use to speak myself into some sort of equilibrium with the universe as it stands. I was broken by a trip to the USSR at 16; the journal I kept originally as some sort of catalog of events morphing into a true diary of my heart and mind; a catalog of less tangible events. But before I wrote, I read, finding comfort and understanding in the minds of fictional people, testing the edges of my emotional boundaries through imaginary action. My feelings toward the books of Madeleine L'Engle
are entirely out of bounds of their literary merit, not that they are bad by any stretch.
I wish that I had encountered these books younger, so that they could sink into the soft sand of my forming personality. I'm not really criticizing here; I've just gotten old and I've read too much, so I keep distracting myself with thoughts like, “Aha! the Stantons are the model for the Weasleys in Harry Potter” or “The way Cooper deals with prophesy, through the re-purposing of folk-songs and -tales, is a fascinating glimpse into post-WWII nostalgia.” I'm just too grumpy and crappy not to be bothered by an almost
tautological sense of good and evil here, but, man, if Cooper doesn't get so many things right that these are almost personal failings and not written in the text.
First, there's her prose, which is abso-total-lutely fantastic. This isn't hasty or, the faint-praise of adjectives, workman-like. Like this, from the FIRST PAGE: “The snow lay thin and apologetic over the world.” Without a lot of flowering poetical b.s., Cooper imbues the landscape with the Christmas hopes and disappointments of the boys who look out over it. The thin snow should apologize for not living up to the expectations of children. Lovely! My real freak-out happened when our young protagonist settles in to read one of those books of power that fantasists are always going on about. Again, I quibble not, despite my slightly dismissive tone. As an avid reader, I'm often puzzled by the paucity of good descriptions of the pleasures of reading, despite an almost religious fetishization of the books themselves in some books. (There IS a good one in Byatt's Possession a Romance) Then there's this:
“He might read no more than one line - I have journeyed as an eagle
- and he was soaring suddenly aloft as one winged, learning through feeling, feeling the way of resting on the wind and tilting round the rising columns of air, of sweeping and soaring, of looking down at patchwork-green hills capped with dark trees, and a winding, glinting river between.”
I don't get the impression that Cooper is trying to be clever here, but she is, dropping a small line in italics which suggests whole experiences to our reader-hero, the way her words and the experience of the words double and treble with the layer of myself as reader, soaring out into wordless understanding of unlived sensation. Fantastic. Bloody brilliant.
One of my weird convergences that I brought to my reading was a recent reading-induced nightmare of a world ending in snow and cold white, with black flying terrors haunting the edges of a too-blue sky. The story of Will Stanton awakening the day of his eleventh birthday to find his power as an Old One, the last in line of Old Ones, locked in a battle with the Dark mounts in drifts of white against the kitchen window, this locked into my half-remembered dream, and I shivered not only from the experience of the words that describe that cold, but the cold of my somnambulist life. Will, Old One and boy, breaks the cold, like waking, but this doesn't end the tale. Instead he struggles though an adolescence, like snowbanks, that does not recede simply because the sky clears.
If only I'd known Will when I was his age. As it stands, I'm humbled to meet him in the books of a friend who was gracious enough to loan me these pieces of her reading life. Thank you, Eh!.