Friday, 15 July 2016

Review: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

I've been reading a fair few children's books lately as a means of keeping a half-eye out for things the Sprogs are going to enjoy in a few years. (Yes, my children are both unrepentent bookworms. Are you surprised?)

It's a bit of an odd sensation, tbh, reading by proxy in this way. One of the reasons I moved away from children's books was because they weren't exactly satisfying me. When I found one I enjoyed, even loved, there was always the creeping disappointment of wanting more - more rigour, more darkness and emotional insight. Now that I'm not merely reading for myself, it feels as though I'm looking with two sets of eyes, one pair belonging to a jaded adult, and one pair that are trying to reconstruct how this story might have made me feel then. 

Take Meggie, for example, Inkheart's protagonist and an archetypal 'good kid'. As an adult, I find her and her worldview more than a touch saccharine. Sure, you root for her, but you wish she'd have a dash more ruthlessness and pragmatism. She's like a butterfly guaranteed to get her wings crushed.

As a child, I would have loved her.

Likewise, Capricorn lacks the ugliness I would expect from a truly impressive villain. Sure, he's monstrous and capable of some supremely cruel acts - but most of these are merely hinted at, contained within the back story. The specific evils he commits seem a little lacklustre in human terms -  and there is very little real sense of his victims to give threat to the protagonists. As someone who binged A Song of Ice and Fire last year, I can assure you: Gregor Clegane he is not.

Well, of course he's bloody not. THIS IS A CHILDREN'S BOOK, ALYS.

See what I mean?

Once I can get past that weirdness, it's quite an astonishingly adult read. I've read some of Funke's other works and I'm always impressed by how utterly ruthless and forthright she can be in many ways. In Inkheart you have a motherless child who is dispassionate about her father's wild hunger to save his wife, a mercenary who made himself a monster to gain approval from an abusive father figure, an older woman who has been stunted by her parent's inattention. Without ever slipping from the warm, slightly reassuring prose of a children's adventure novel, Funke lifts a stone on a whole world of human pain and darkness. Her touch is incredibly light, letting naïve readers slip over some of her finest work - the ugliness of the adult world and complexity of the human character.

More than that, she holds her compassion intact. Writers are murderous bastards, after all, much known to cackle over the demise of their most beloved characters. But by blending the real and the fictional in the way that she does in this novel, Funke over-writes the the blasé attitude some of us have towards fictional death. The conceit of the novel helps with this - sure, the death scene was a real tear-jerker, you were very proud of it. Now look into the eyes of the character you wrote out, and explain it to him.

As such, there is a real integrity to the relative gentleness of the novel. By heightening the internal stakes in the way she does, there is less need for the death and mayhem that other writers use - the threat of it is enough. If an adult reader is left unconvinced that there was ever any real threat, that seriousness of her writing makes it clear that this decision is not one she took lightly. That if she choses to kill a character, believe me, she will do it.

And it will devastate you.

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