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.
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.
We'll be back on Sunday 12 April with the details of our latest investigation, on alternative publishing: how to do it, who does it, how it works, and what it's really like. Till then, we invite you to read books about eggs, chocolates, the return of life to a hopeful world, and the wonder of seasons changing.