Tuesday, 1 September 2009

wormwood – g.p. taylor

bk wormwood For several years now Harry Potter audio books have been a real godsend to the Ritchie household on our summer holidays. The long drives to various parts of France have been transformed into an enjoyable experience as we listen to the honeyed tones of Stephen Fry reading J.K.Rawling’s tomes. However, even these soundtracks of the summer have begun to wear a bit thin both literally and metaphorically. The kids know each book off by heart and have become expert critics of the films as they compare text to screen and spot the omissions, alterations and inconsistencies.

In a bid to break the Potter habit I headed off to the library in search of new material and came away with Wormwood, G.P. Taylor’s follow up to the excellent Shadowmancer. As we set off to Devon last week I inserted the first disc and waited to see how it would go down with the budding literary critics of the Ritchie clan. The first thing to say is that the book is brilliantly read by Cornelius Garrett who uses a wide range of voices to realise the various characters in the narrative. The plot lends itself to dramatic reading with a fast paced plot full of darkness and mystery. Taylor’s descriptions of London are graphically realised and you can almost smell and taste the disgusting underbelly of eighteenth century life in the capital.

The plot of Wormwood centres around two characters, Dr Sabian Blake and his servant girl Agetta. Blake is a scientist and astronomer with a fascination for the Kabbalah who comes into possession of a precious book called the Nemorensis. During his observations of the night sky Blake discovers a comet called Wormwood hurtling towards the Earth, threatening to bring destruction to London and he studies the Nemorensis in an attempt to understand the unfolding catastrophe. The book is sought by other sinister characters including the beautiful and mysterious Yerzinia and her accomplices. Agetta is a fourteen year old, reminiscent of Pullman’s Lyra, who longs to escape service to Blake and her life of toil and drudgery. Hearing about the Nemorensis and encouraged by Yerzinia, Agetta steals the book from her master and sets out to deliver it into the hands of a bookseller introduced to her by Yerzinia.

As the race to retrieve the Nemorensis develops two other extraordinary figures are introduced amongst the collection of grotesques emerging from the backstreets of the metropolis. Tegatus is a fallen angel, imprisoned by Agetta’s father and facing a future on public display as a freak. Agetta frees Tegatus and together they seek to prevent the Nemorensis falling into Yerzinia’s hands. At the same time Blake discovers that he has a guardian angel Abram (Raphael) following him and Abram explains his mission to retrieve the Nemorensis while also exposing the foolishness and danger of Blake’s fascination with the Kabbalah.

Taylor is a skilled descriptive writer, though at times he lingers too long on the blood and gore; there are only so many descriptions of sores, scabs, lice and disfigurements one can take. Some of the accounts of the panic and mayhem following the emergence of the comet are truly horrific, including packs of wild dogs tearing apart children and the infirm, in a style characteristic of the classic gothic novel, and this tone is sustained throughout the text. The chapter headings are chiefly in Latin, there are unfamiliar phrases and scriptural allusions likely to be ignored by many and there are occasions when it is difficult to follow the narrative which continually demands careful listening. With the book it would be easier to reread key passages and conversations.

The book is not without controversy. Taylor is regarded as a children’s writer and yet the material is challenging. I’ve already mentioned the graphic and gruesome descriptions and there are occult references and allusions. Others have been disturbed by the ambiguity regarding good and evil in the story; this is much more subtle than Harry Potter where the characters are more clearly on the side of right and wrong. Taylor is prepared to explore the spectrum and uncertainty, leaving it to his audience to reflect and draw their own conclusions. The subtlety provides much material for reflection and discussion about the nature of what is good and what corrupts. One of the issues explored skilfully by the author is the contrast between a rationalist scientific reductionism represented by Blake and a spiritual openness to questions including whether we have a soul.

I did wonder whether Wormwood was suitable listening for our young son but he has seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy and listened to the excellent BBC dramatisation, so blood, guts, evil and demons are nothing new. Perhaps the main difference is LOTR is more clearly fantastical whereas Wormwood is rooted in a world more realistic even if of a different time. There were times when both our kids found it difficult to follow the intricacies of the story and it will be worth waiting a couple of years before we give it another go.

Wormwood is more Pullman than Potter and harder work than both but was still an entertaining way to pass a few hours in the car.

1 comment:

Yewtree said...

I found Shadowmancer deeply offensive, on the grounds that it claims that all Pagan deities whatsoever are the Devil in disguise, and is a thinly-disguised evangelical polemic. (Admittedly Philip Pullman's work is a thinly-disguised atheist polemic...)