I tried really hard to like this book. Really hard. Like an underperforming child or the cat that pees on the carpet, I made a LOT of excuses for it. Robin Jarvis was one of my all-time favourite authors as a child. I devoured the Deptford Mice and Deptford Histories and felt genuinely bereft when they were finished and there wasn’t more to come. The man can definitely spin a yarn. I have a sneaking suspicion that his novel, Thomas may have in small way changed my life as a child. And discovering that this was about a fantasy book that possesses people, like some YA-King-Gaiman mashup, I nearly peed all over the carpet along with the cat.
It is a premise full of promise (to enter into the spirit of irritating and nonsensical wordplay). Jarvis writes exceptionally thrilling narratives that do keep you gripped, so when he starts to write about the dangers of an equally addictive book, Dancing Jacks, that is found in a creepy old house filled with eerily sentient mould, it has the potential to be a real spine-tingler. He turns the traditional idea of reading being a virtue, making you into a hero (as in, for example, that classic about escapist kids’ literature, The Neverending Story) by making it the very thing that poses the greatest threat. Book burning becomes a necessity for survival, rather than an easy Hitlerish metaphor for evil. It all gets a bit meta, and a bit dark. Great stuff.
Except it’s like reading this excellent premise through the dual lens of a) a terrible fantasy novel and b) an angry Daily Mail article.
Let’s start with a).
Every paragraph starts with an excerpt from Dancing Jacks. It’s a kind of Grimm Fairytale world based loosely around playing cards, but it’s written like your worst nightmare of a fantasy novel. ‘So mote it be’? Eugh. Even though it’s been written by a satanist who is presumably better at arcane arts than he is at literacy, the idea of an addictive book is kind of undermined by its sheer shonkiness. Martin, the harrowed Maths teacher who I guess is our hero (although the narrative flits between lots of important characters, including his stepson, Paul), actually seems to provide a kind of get-out clause – seemingly immune to the novel’s effects, he muses that he can’t see the appeal – ‘it was stodgy, repetitive and obvious and in places quite impenetrable’. Is this actually a get out clause written into your own novel?
To be fair, the more I think about this, the more I think about whether he’s making a point about escapism — plenty of fantasy and sci fi is ridden with cliche but the appeal of another world is stronger than people’s aversion to bad writing, and maybe he’s exploring how deep your desire to escape your own life will go. But then, plenty of fantasy and sci fi is really good. Including other work by Robin Jarvis. So I’m not convinced.
b) Fine, if you want to make a point about how the world has gone to hell already thanks to our shallow lives following footballers and talent shows. But don’t…don’t actually write your own diatribes into every single character’s speech in the novel! The demonic Ismus towards the end of the novel reveals why the time is now ripe for the dark book to take hold.
There are no children in this world any more. You dress and treat them as mini-adults. You let little girls play with dolls that look like Berlin prostitutes. The morality and hypocrisy I used to find so stomach-churning no longer exists. You foist on to your young people role models whose brains are never as active as their underwear, and whose talents and achievements extend only as far as the bedroom door and the ability to blurt every detail of what happens behind it. You give your precious offspring access to a lightning-fast network of corruption and danger. You immerse them in computer games far more violent than the most savage and dirty war, and target prepubescents with inappropriate music and imagery – giving them a vocabulary that would have revolted sailors back in my day. There are not stigmas, no taboos, no boundaries, no respect and certainly no innocence left. To be pregnant at thirteen is no longer an everlasting shame, merely a career choice.
This is the culmination of other asides about the state of the nation made by one of the other main characters. Supposedly a nerdy but loveable maths teacher, Martin still describes most of his pupils as ‘scum’ and tells Emma, admittedly a pretty irritating and mouthy student, that she’ll never amount to anything. Education at its finest. Even when Jarvis follows Emma, suggesting that in her story at least she might develop some redeeming features, she remains a 2D straw figure ripe for bashing – just as Martin all-too-readily assumes, she’s really only interested in getting wasted on ‘Breezers’ and being famous. Phew. Thank goodness our assumptions aren’t being challenged in any way, then.
This also brings me onto another issue, which is the slang. Writing in dialect, particularly when it’s young people, is fraught with danger but that’s not to say you should never do it – sometimes it makes for a fully immersive novel where you get a real flavour of the times that you wouldn’t with a more standardized lexicon. Not here. I’ve never been to Felixstowe, so maybe everybody does talk like an old man pretending to be ‘down with the kidz’ but I doubt it. So when some wannabe gangster kid (fair enough, we’ve all met enough of those) refuses to pull his trousers up because ‘It’s my identity, innit. I’m doing it to support my brothers. I won’t yank up my saggys…You is well bullying me, Sir,’ this isn’t the voice of a teenager but of a middle-aged man who knows enough to parody kids, but not enough to sound like them. It would work if it was Martin doing the impression, but not in a supposedly real-life scene. Similarly, the references to Facebook, Lady Gaga, I’m a Celebrity and X Factor are so exhaustive as to be, well, exhausting. A year after publication, it’s already starting to feel dated, and you can’t help wonder whether the ‘x’ in the title is similarly borne of a sense that that’s what people do to make things current, when in fact that stopped working about a decade ago.
Also, fans of 90s UK children’s programmes, does this have a familiar ring to it?
Ultimately, I feel like this novel skirts round the big issues it tries to raise. There are many more insidious dangers to children from modernity than the ones that Jarvis choses to focus on, and although the story gets gripping towards the end, it also never stopped annoying the hell out of me.