Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Ingo by Helen Dunmore

Mum phones, and everything begins. Once it starts you can’t stop it. I’m still clinging to the hope that the police and the coastguard will say we’re being stupid to bother them. Take it easy, your dad’ll be fine. Wait a while and he’ll turn up. But they don’t.

The coastguard Jeep comes bouncing down the track. People talk into radios and mobiles. The police crowd into the kitchen, filling it with their uniforms.

Neighbours knock on the door. Mary goes out to talk to them, quietly, so that none of us will hear her telling the story over and again. There are mugs of tea on the kitchen table, some empty, some half full. People start bringing sandwiches and cakes and biscuits until there’s so much food I think it’ll never get eaten. I can’t eat anything. I try to swallow a biscuit and I choke, and Mum holds a glass of water to my mouth while I sip and splutter. Mum’s face is creased with fear and lack of sleep.

Eager to continue with my reviews of novels set in the Westcountry, I was delighted when a fellow book blogger recommended the work of Helen Dunmore. As the fabulous mermaid on the cover would suggest, Helen Dunmore’s first in a string of books set in Cornwall features the mysterious underwater Mer world of Ingo.

At the beginning of the book we meet eleven-year-old Sapphire and her elder brother, Conor. The two siblings love being so close to the sea and they are lucky enough to live near a relatively inaccessible cove that they consider as belonging to themselves. Their father has his own boat, the Peggy Gordon, and makes money taking photographs of seascapes, which he sells to tourists for a good profit. Their mother, however, will have nothing to do with the sea and is reluctant to even visit the cove, for reasons that she won’t disclose. Conor and Sapphire enjoy swimming and surfing and they evidently have a very close bond but all is not rosy in their household and there is palpable tension between their parents.

Soon after a nasty argument between her parents, Sapphire’s world is plunged into chaos when her father fails to return from a boat trip. Has Sapphire’s father abandoned his family or has some terrible ill befallen him? The family waits on tenterhooks for him to return, but in due course the coastguard search is called off and a few weeks later the upturned hull of the Peggy Gordon is discovered wrecked on some rocks. Her father’s body is not found but a funeral is performed anyway, a funeral that Sapphire, Conor and a mysterious witchy person called Granny Carne, believe is not necessary. Sapphire and Conor do not, will not, accept that their father is dead. They instinctively feel that out there somewhere he is still alive. Their mother is keen for them to accept what she sees as the inevitable truth and this creates a distance between mother and children that escalates over the summer, especially as the mother is forced to work longer and longer hours waitressing at a local restaurant, leaving her children to fend for themselves.

The first turning point in the relationship between brother and sister comes when Conor also disappears. He is only gone for the day but Sapphire is distraught when she cannot find him in any of his usual haunts. Finally she spots Conor talking to a mysterious girl ‘in a wetsuit’ on the rocks of their cove and later finds that Conor has totally lost track of time, believing himself absent from his home for minutes rather than hours. There then ensues a period of discovery and enlightenment as Sapphire is led into the strange and potentially dangerous world of Ingo.

The strength of this novel for me lies in the relationship between brother and sister. I found that relationship dynamic absolutely convincing. Sapphire and Conor are being pulled in different directions as they grow up and there is both a sadness and excitement in this – feelings I remember well from my own childhood with elder brothers.

Ingo, however, I found to be a surprisingly unsatisfying world. It took me almost half of the book before I could suspend my disbelief in regards to Ingo and accept Sapphire’s impressions of the underwater realm. I have tried to pin down why this was the case and at first concluded that it was a failing of imagination on my own part. That I couldn’t make the imaginative leap necessary to embrace the idea of an ordinary ‘Air’ girl entering a Mer world. Perhaps my 29-year-old brain and natural cynicism held me back. But then, I considered, I’ve enjoyed and been swept up in plenty of other fantasy worlds, Middle Earth and Hogwarts amongst them. So why couldn’t I believe in Dunmore’s Mer world? I’m not sure of the answer, but I think that my stubborn refusal to accept Ingo as a ‘real’ place began when Sapphire discovers that her brother has been visiting Ingo for some time without her knowing. I just couldn’t believe that discovering mermaids and mermen wouldn’t have had more of an impact on Conor. Surely such incredible experiences would have changed him profoundly and Sapphire would have noticed those changes? The fact that Sapphire is so blind-sided just did not ring true for me. Once Sapphire started to feel the powerful effects of Ingo on her own body and mind, I was more able to accept this new reality.

Still, I am sure this is a book that would appeal to many children and I am glad I had the opportunity to read it. Ingo is the first of a tetralogy and I look forward to reading the other books and discovering the answers to all the questions that the first book so tantalisingly leaves unanswered.

Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-720488-5 £6.99. Paperback. 320 pages.

12 comments on “Ingo by Helen Dunmore

  1. Nikki
    March 13, 2010

    Sounds like a good read, would you say it’s a YA book? I love the sound of the relationships in the book, between siblings and mother and children. I’m not a fan of cosy relationships in books. Despite never having read the book, I found it a bit odd that Conor would keep such a secret from his sister when you have emphasised their closeness. Is there a reason for it?

  2. Lisa
    March 13, 2010

    Yeah, I’d say it’s a very good YA novel but I’m still flummoxed as to why Conor kept his knowledge of Ingo from his sister, especially given the disappearance at sea of their father. I suppose it could be that Conor sensed Ingo would be dangerous for Sapphire, but still, I couldn’t quite believe that Conor could experience that amazing underwater world without Sapphire picking up on it. Good book though and I have a feeling I would have absolutely adored it when I was about ten and obsessed with all things sea.

  3. Jackie
    March 13, 2010

    That is a terrific cover, probably the best mermaid depiction I’ve seen. It’s unfortunate that the book didn’t live up to it. Perhaps Conor was sworn to secrecy about Ingo? But you’d think there would still be clues from his behavior, such as an overeager desire to swim, etc? But maybe a less observant reader wouldn’t notice this loophole? I would think an underwater world would be more appealing than Hogwarts, at least to me, especially as a young person.
    I like the trend of making more YA books into series/trilogies. When I was little, so many books I liked were single, stand alone books & so often I wished to remain in that world for longer.

  4. rosyb
    March 14, 2010

    I’ve heard so much about Helen Dunmore. I didn’t even know she wrote more YA kind of books also. To be honest, the premise of this does not attract me and I don’t think it would have as a child either. I think mermaids etc were just not something that appealed to the young me at all. There is quite a tradition of Selkie tales etc in Scotland. I never liked them much either! Far preferring the kind of Greek mythology stuff – winged horses and sea monsters and arguing gods. I think it was partly that I found the norse/celtic stuff rather humourless in comparison or maybe something to do with the child versions I got my hands on… and also – looking back – it’s because (like Jackie) I was obsessed with animals. So any animals story where they turned into humans became distinctly uninteresting to me immediately. I like mythological creatures to be more animal and less human. If mermaids had trout heads I might have found them more interesting. Ho hum. :)

  5. kirstyjane
    March 15, 2010

    This book sounds haunting, for all its flaws. Thanks Lisa – it’s great to get an insight like this into YA literature (I’m shamefully out of touch with it).

  6. Col
    March 15, 2010

    The best mermaid-type story I read was A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter, set in the Shetlands. It totally creeped me out as a child.

  7. 5minutespeace
    March 15, 2010

    This looks good. I will check it out. I was captivated by the snippet of prose you provided. Beautiful illustration on the cover.

    Helen Dunmore has always been popular in-store, not sure why I haven’t checked out her work before now.

    As always, great reviewing.

  8. Lisa
    March 16, 2010

    Liking the idea of the mermaids with trout heads, Rosy! And Jackie, I agree about the cover. The Mer are described here as being more seal-like than fish-like with tails that look and feel like seal tails. The cover has foils and really does look quite stunning.

    It was quite a haunting read, Kirsty, that’s true. I even dreamed about aggressive Mer people while I was reading this!

    I like the idea of a creepy mermaid story, Col. Dunmore’s Mer do have a slightly sinister edge to them, which I think works well.

    I agree about the snippet of prose, 5minutespeace. The father’s disappearance was by far the most gripping part of the book for me.

    Thank you all for the comments.

  9. Cherie
    April 8, 2010

    HI there
    The premise was really good, but there were so many questions raised and hardly any of them answered that it just felt unsatisfying to me.
    WE have
    a dad who vanishes in strange circumstances (v interesting)
    a mum who is scared of the sea (pretty interesting)
    a brother and sister who
    a)can run around and do as they like over the summer holidays ( a bit Enid Blyton- realistic these days??)
    b) breathe underwater (to varying degrees)(v exciting- why can they do this?)
    c) may or may not be related directly to the mer people who seduce them into the sea (why all the secrecy?)
    d) a new man who just appears quite a long way into the book, so who seems quite flat (and boring) yet a threat (because the dad isn’t dead) – but he is a diver, so what is he really doing there?
    e) a mysterious old woman who seems to singlehandedly be the counterforce pro human beings against the whole of the mer race (or is she?)
    It just read like a book that was setting up a series, and did not really read as a great standalone book to me.

  10. e
    July 21, 2010

    The Ingo books are the best!!! I wish she could wright a fith one!

  11. e
    July 21, 2010

    I love these books:)!

  12. Cassie
    November 11, 2010

    Very slow paced.

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This entry was posted on March 13, 2010 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: children's, Westcountry books & authors and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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