My husband’s birthday has just passed and as usual the thought of getting older made him irritable. Getting older is a fact of life. But what about great literature? Does it age? Does good writing stand the test of time? Many would argue that the classics, by definition, are ageless. Books like Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird or Brontë’s Wuthering Heights are so steeped in a sense of place and time, explore themes that are so universal, that they transcend time and resonate even now. But others might argue that certain aspects date even these stories. Would three pages of description of the setting, however haunting and beautiful, survive a modern editor’s pen, for example? It’s true that readers today want one-click gratification, and fast and furious storytelling. They want to be able to consume a story in a half hour lunch break, or during the commute home from work.
“I don’t have time for long-winded explanation, give me the abridged version.”
“Can you sum it up in a sentence?”
Perhaps this attitude explains the appeal of Matthew Reilly’s bestselling novels with their knife-edge plotting and minimalist description. But maybe that’s a generalisation. Readers still want to be carried away to new worlds, they want to get in the character’s heads and truly feel what they’re feeling. So long as a story offers those insights, then surely the reader will forgive a little meandering?
I decided to put this to the test, picking up a book that had recently been withdrawn from the local library. Entitled A Trick of the Dark, it’s a young adult fantasy written by English writer, Kenneth Lillington. The inside jacket indicates that when A Trick of the Dark was published in 1994, Lillington, a former teacher and prolific playwright, had written no less than ten books for young adults, and a further three for middle grade readers. So, this was not a debut book, but one in an extensive list of published titles, and from a writer once shortlisted for the Guardian’s prestigious Children’s Fiction Award. If A Trick of The Light can be considered representative of the young adult literature of its day, how does it stack up twenty years on?
A Trick of the Dark is a stand-alone tale. It tells of eighteen-year-old Kate Crimonesi, a practical mathematically-minded girl, who discovers an elf reflected in her bedroom window. Only, it’s not the first time Kate’s seen it, and the first time, ten years ago, its appearance had caused a rift between Kate and her father. Back then, the elf had appeared mischievous and mocking, whereas now it is haggard and malevolent. Kate is compelled to find out more…
As a lover of dark and twisty tales, Lillington’s premise of evil elves intrigued from the outset, although the cover art is too dated for my taste. The use of pastel colours to convey the book’s disturbing content doesn’t work, making the country residence image appear more Disney than Dante. But since we mustn’t judge a book by its cover, I dive in.
The first thing I notice is Lillington’s eye of God perspective, a technique which has fallen out of favour in young adult literature in recent times. The author intrudes so much on the narrative that I almost expect Lillington to write ‘Dear Reader’, in the manner of Fay Weldon. Since the eye of God perspective allows the author to be all-powerful and all-seeing, Lillington’s narrative involves a lot of head-hopping, switching from Kate’s point of view, to her father’s, to a professor’s devoted secretary, to her father’s former governess, and so on, with little to differentiate between their respective voices. The result: the story’s main character, Kate, isn’t quite believable as an eighteen-year-old heroine—her voice too pompously adult—and nor is she likeable, tending towards petulant and self-righteous. In 2014, I imagine one of my writing critique partners writing “authorial’ in the margin, and sending me off to take my ‘voice’ out of the story because today’s preference is for perspectives that foist the reader right into their characters’ psyche, with styles and points of view that are more intimate. Perhaps, it is a legacy of the reality television phenomenon, but readers want to know the characters, their motivations and their secrets.
Another aspect which dates the story is that although it is (partially) resolved by the story’s heroine, it’s a watery, insipid event. Today’s readers want more than a happy ending: they want the main character to see the error of their ways, overcome their weaknesses, and ultimately achieve their goals through endeavour and understanding. And readers want that climax to involve some action. In both these respects, A Trick of the Dark falls short.
Overall, although it has a lot to commend it, I cannot see this book appealing to today’s young adults—and a lack of borrowing history is probably the reason it was withdrawn from the library. It is a reasonably readable book, but is has aged. That said, Lillington does an excellent job of creating the creepy underworld of the elves and their kin, of establishing the rules of the magic, and conveying the menace of the conniving, exacting creatures living just beyond the edge of the garden, of anyone’s garden…