Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Revisiting A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean

I'm late to the Peter Pan in Scarlet conversation or debate or whatever it was. But that's all right, because I could really be speaking to myself about this, for all the attention anyone's going to give my thoughts in the matter.

Rereading the original Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie after many years (I managed to get my hands on the 100th anniversary edition) I find the narrative voice has an arch tone to it, the precise tone that has perhaps made writers veer away from omniscient storyteller viewpoints for almost a century. What a very involved author this is, frequently inserting commentary into the text, and tacitly endorsing the world of the story.

Not to upset those who have waited for years to return to Neverland, but I find that tacit endorsement a tad worrying, because both the racist and sexist overtones (the “redskins” and Wendy’s "motherly" role) are quite frankly hair-raising. I understand that 1911, the year of the first novelization of the play, Peter Pan and Wendy, was also the year of the Imperial Delhi Durbar—things were different back then. Yet this book in its 100th anniversary edition, is available to children today without a word of explanation about that shift in thinking that we’re supposed to have made. No contextual footnotes, no afterword, no explanation at all. I'm not saying we should yank it off the shelf. But a little context would be good, no? Something to suggest that we've moved on?

Unless of course we haven't.

Before I get to the sequel, I'm finding myself returning to another book by Geraldine McCaughrean. I first read A Pack of Lies twelve years ago, nearly a decade after its publication. It's a brilliant work, with its stories nested within the frame tale of mildly discontented Ailsa and her mother, struggling to keep an antiques store afloat. The iconic MCC Berkshire shows up and throws their lives into turmoil, spinning stories about objects he sells for (and sometimes despite) Ailsa and Mrs. Povey. The deft twist at the end offers a subtle commentary on the nature of fiction and truth, and throws into disarray all that we've come to believe about this bookstore world. McCaughrean's liquid prose ebbs and flows, carrying me along. I'm not even reading it so much as slip-sliding over it to an inevitable destination that makes me want to turn back to page 1 and repeat the experience all over again.

So now I'm reading it again, and taking a closer look in particular at the story that interests me most, "The Writing Box: The Story of a Liar." The customer is their neighbor Mr. Singh. Okay, so he's a bit stiff, speaks without contractions (that's getting to be my pet peeve about South Asian voices transcribed by writers who aren't from the region). What? We never use contractions? None of us? Ever?

I decide I like Mr. Singh anyway. He sounds a bit like my father's colleagues from his days in the Government of India, a motley assortment of philosopher-bureaucrats I remember from my youth. I keep going. The India part of the story channels The Secret Garden, definitely, with mysterious natives and snakes and whatnot. The land itself is more than a little Orientalist, a strange and unnerving ocean on which the English girl Grace has been cast adrift. But there the story takes a giant sweeping turn away from a Victorian worldview and into a post-colonial present, by inverting the old trope of the untrustworthy native and the helpless European. It's Grace who has lied her way through life until she meets her match in the land where her people are both served and hated. And in the end Mr. Singh naturally buys the box and book that spark the story, and his "arms closed around them as the arms of India once closed around her sweet Independence." It's all about voice and viewpoint and in this case McCaughrean slides to a nice finish on both.

Next up, Peter Pan in Scarlet.

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