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.
Susan Cooper is back, and about time too. She was the first woman to edit the Oxford University magazine Cherwell, and wrote for the Sunday Times under Ian Fleming. Her first novel, Mandrake (1964) was a good British dystopia novel, now sadly dated but nonetheless good reading for all of that. Dawn of Fear (1970) is a classic children’s war story, and used to be taught in British schools. Her outstanding series of Arthurian quest novels The Dark Is Rising (1965-77) has won multiple prizes, and a film based on its story was produced as The Seeker in 2007. Then there was a gap, until Seaward burst upon a waiting world in 1983, and it was terrific: futuristic, fantastical, closely linked to Alice Through the Looking-Glass, and a marvellous parable about refugees and adolescence. Then there was another gap, until five children’s novels which I unaccountably missed out on reading because my own children didn’t much like her. And now we have Ghost Hawk, which continues her old theme of strangers in a strange land, and her more recent exploration of the history of the USA, and I am unaccountably disappointed.
I don’t think it’s because I am wallowing in my nostalgia for The Dark is Rising. I reread Seaward (Cooper’s best novel, in my view) after reading Ghost Hawk, because the intended reader is the same: the intelligent adolescent and older. Where Seaward is sensitive, spare, timeless, deceptively simple and packed with emotional integrity, Ghost Hawk is visibly careful, planned, awkwardly structured, and its characters rarely leave the page. It also preaches ecology and universal tolerance in the rather obvious way that reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle, and that is simply irritating.
But Ghost Hawk has so much going for it. I am bewildered as to why Cooper didn’t get her usual magic flowing. The big problem for me is the way the novel is structured. (Although the next lines may seem like a spoiler, all the publicity for the book does mention the crucial point.) The story has a great start. Little Hawk is a Wampanoag, living on the eastern seaboard of North America in the early 17th century, and he grows to adulthood after a harrowing and thrilling three-month winter survival ordeal that is his personal journey to manhood. He survives partly because of an iron knife that his father had received in trade from white settlers on the coast. Later, he meets some of these white men, and shows them, and one small white boy, John, how to catch fish. Several years after that, Little Hawk is murdered, while trying to help John’s father who is trapped under a falling tree, and the manner of his death means that he is bound to John’s fortunes.
This is perfectly fine, but what totally destroyed my suspension of disbelief was that Little Hawk continues the narration of the story, which has now become John’s story, as a ghost. So the story begins in first-person narration, switches to omniscient third-person narration as spoken by Ghost Hawk, who occasionally intrudes himself into the narrative of John Wakely, and (most annoying of all), skips a few more centuries to be concluded in the 20th century. I hated this, because it doesn’t work, and felt like a sermon. Any intelligent reader – child or adult or in between – will be asking, ‘what? How can that happen?’, and that is death to a story that rests on an acceptance of fantasy elements. The historical novel is a special kind of fantasy fiction, that we accept if it feels real within itself, it follows its own rules of an approximation of realism. But as soon as you mess around with its internal consistency, you expose the whole delicate edifice as a tissue of lies designed for our entertainment. This ghost narration is the only supernatural or fantasy element in Ghost Hawk, so it intrudes. In a recent prizewinning novel whose narrator also dies and continues narrating as a ghost from partway through, we accepted the talking ghost because the story also has roles for mythical creatures and the gods: ghosts are part of that world. But to intrude a ghost into what is otherwise a realist narrative about historical figures who we are intended to believe in as real does not work.
This is disappointing because so much in Ghost Hawk is spell-binding. When Cooper talks about nature, she is completely believable. When she describes how the tribes live, we don’t question anything because these parts of the story are completely plausible, and written so beautifully. Somehow, she is not so comfortable writing about the English settlers. Sometimes these parts read as if she’d been rereading The Scarlet Letter, or witchcraft trial evidence, so the story is carefully written, but lacks joy, nuance and depth. Whereas Little Hawk’s life, when he had one, is deep and rich.
Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk (London: The Bodley Head, 2013) 978-1-782-30000-7 £12.99 hardback
Kate has podcasted enthusiastically about Susan Cooper on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.