Monday, 10 February 2020

THE TIME OF GREEN MAGIC by Hilary McKay. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

The arrival of a novel by Hilary McKay is always a real treat. This one was tempting from before I began. It has an attractive and slightly mysterious cover, sprinkled with the odd star and the font and layout are a joy. There's a lot of white space around the words and a beautiful drawing of ivy at the top of each chapter. This may seem trivial, but it's important for signalling the sort of book it is: accessible for quite young children, and the opposite of unapproachable, but still, quite grown up because not illustrated throughout.

 And the story is blissful. It paints the portrait of a family and Hilary is a Top Purveyor of Fabulous Families for readers too young for Anne Tyler.  This one is blended, too, which makes it  all the more interesting. Abi is the heroine. She acquires two step brothers, Max and Louis, when her dad, Theo,  (a nurse) marries Polly, the boys' mother. Abi's beloved Granny Grace goes back to her native  Jamaica and Abi misses her.

The family has to move. They fall in love with a strange place which has a lot of ivy clinging to its walls and somehow, they gather together enough money for the rent. There's a book room, full of many exciting books. They see a toad, whom they call Mrs Puddock and she becomes a kind of pet. A young Frenchwoman, Esmé, who's an art student, is employed to take care of the children between the end of school and Polly and Theo getting home. And the green magic begins to work on all of them.

Louis, who struggles a bit at school, falls under the spell of the books in a very particular way. Or is it the ivy which is the magical element? Or the specific kind of art Esmé creates?  I am not in the business of spoilers and what happens to the family while they're living in the ivy-clad house is something I'm not going to go into, but be assured, it's magic, as advertised in the title. The enchantment comes not only from the events of the book, (though they're exciting and intriguing enough) but from the language. McKay is one of those writers of whom I say every time  I read one of her books: I don't know how she does it.  She has the ability to conjure up places and people with the lightest of touches. She is the Queen of Subtlety. Here's Max, who has a massive  teenage crush on Esmé:

"Max was in his bedroom talking to his mirror. It was Monday and he had rushed home from school, showered, cleaned his teeth and dug out his best jeans and T- shirt, the Snoop Dog one that Danny's brother once remarked was cool. Now he was practising the words he needed for Esmé. He said to the mirror: 'I'm sorry I dropped the pasta on Friday. It was stupid.'

I rest my case.  The first sentence alone is a wonder. There's nothing strange or unusual or overwrought about it. It couldn't be simpler. Knowing how to convey so much in so little is what McKay excels at and she does it  all the way through the  story.  If you're a teacher, give your Year 6 class a treat and read it to them at the end of every day's lessons. Parents,  try and read it aloud to your children so that you don't miss out on the huge pleasures of this unusual novel.