Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Birthday Review: The Serial Garden, by Joan Aiken

The Serial Garden, by Joan Aiken (Big Mouth House (an imprint of Small Beer Press), 978-1-931520-57-7, $20, hc, 328 pages) October 2008.

A review by Rich Horton

I grew up reading all sorts of children’s (and YA) books of course, and among my favorites were Joan Aiken’s Wolves novels, set in an alternate 19th Century England. But I was not an organized reader, and I never encountered her short stories. She wrote many of them, however, and among the best-loved were the Armitage stories, sprinkled throughout several of her collections. Now these stories, with four new ones completed prior to her death in 2004, have been assembled into a single book.

The stories concern a family in a village in England, Mr. and Mrs. Armitage and their children Harriet and Mark (with baby Milo turning up rather later). A Prelude tells how the Armitages arranged, on their honeymoon, that they would never ever be bored. These tales, published over some 50 years or more, are set in sort of an eternal present – a village that in flavor never really changes, though somehow the time of the action tracks the time of writing. And it is an ordinary English village (I assume) except with magic, magic accepted rather straight-facedly by all the characters. Of course, many of them are witches! And, happily, the magic is real and had enduring consequences – so for example the unicorn Candleberry that the Armitages acquire in the first story ("Yes, but Today is Tuesday") remains with them throughout the book.

The stories are entirely charming, and yet not cloying. Importantly, the tone varies, acts have consequences, and not everything is sweetness and light. For example, the title story, and one of the best, concerns Mark’s music teacher, Mr. Johansen, and his long lost love, who has vanished into a rather unusual place. It begins charmingly with Mark collecting a cardboard garden from a somewhat unpleasant sounding breakfast cereal – and defies expectations with its ending. (Happily, it is hinted later that Mr. Johansen may have another chance to find his inamorata.)

Other favorites of mine include "The Ghostly Governess", in which Harriet and Mark end up taking lessons from a long dead lady; "Harriet’s Birthday Present", in which Mark’s search for a special present for Harriet lands him in hot – well, not water exactly (and I do wish I knew what he ended up getting her); "The Land of Trees and Heroes", in which the children visit their grandmother and then the title land, where people can be lost forever in certain special trees; "The Stolen Quince Tree", an amusingly sharp treatment of a fraudulent gardening columnist; and really all of the new stories, perhaps most notably "Don’t Go Fishing on Witches’ Day", a bit of a time travel story as Mark gets ensnarled in an ancient curse. But really, that’s the current set of favorites – were I to think again I might choose a half-dozen different stories – the book is a delight throughout.

My only recommendation would be -- at least this worked for me -- to read the stories in small chunks, two to four at a time. They are by and large of a length and of a voice, and while the tone does vary as noted above it does tend to return to the same level. So read in a rush the book might wear on one. But that’s not how they first were written, or first appeared, and read individually these are quite lovely. And in the best of senses, without, I think, any condescension, these are stories to please all ages.

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