Wednesday 7 March 2012

JUNIPER by Gene Kemp. Reviewed by Ellen Renner

The creepy crawly swung on a spider's single thread outside the grimy bathroom window; round and back again it twirled, parcelled up with spider super glue; an insect deep-freeze, she supposed. She couldn't reach it from anywhere, not that there was much point anyway. It was very dead. Sorry, she thought-waved, and ran downstairs.
The man was there. Mr Beamish.
Standing in the kitchen and straight out of a story by Dickens or Joan Aiken. Juniper had met him before; he knew her and she knew him and they didn't care for each other one little bit. Waiting there for her, the eternal villain, fat, with purple, rubbery jowls and a shiny skin, laughter lines round eyes as small and sharp as pins, full of humour as cruel as the east wind just before the snow falls and greasy as fish and chips, cold fish and chips.
(Juniper, by Gene Kemp. Puffin Books, 1988)

Sometimes a book steals your heart and never lets go. For me, Juniper is one of those books.

Published in 1986 by Gene Kemp, author of the award-winning The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, Juniper seems never to have received the attention it deserves. I had the good fortune to meet Gene a few years ago, when I invited her to speak to a local writers' group - and the temerity to tell her that Juniper was my favourite of her books. At that point her face lit up and she confessed, as few writers are brave enough to do, to a favourite child. She no longer had a copy of Juniper and longed to see mine. Unfortunately, we'd recently moved and it was still in packing crates.

I love the cover Puffin has put on the 1988 edition. (Mine is ex-library, of course: it's sad that they sold off such a brilliant book.) The cover drew me in first; the image of Juniper herself with her one point five arms and determined face, climbing up the hill followed by her friend Ranjit. I bought the book for the cover and because of Gene Kemp's name. I had read Tyke and enjoyed it immensely, especially the clever writing that enables the twist at the end. But like Gene herself, I love Juniper best.

It's inevitable that the writers you love, the ones whose books you read and re-read, will colour your own work in ways you may not realise. Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahey, Joan Aiken: these are my touchstones. But it was revisiting Juniper in order to write this review – in the very month that the American edition of my debut book, Castle of Shadows, is published – that made me realise that the character of Juniper, together with Aiken's Dido Twite, must have influenced the creation of my own heroine, Charlie, although neither was in my conscious mind as I wrote.

Like Charlie, Juniper could be said to have an 'absent' mother. Charlie's has run away; Juniper's mother Ellie is a fey and beautiful woman suffering mental illness whom her daughter must look after. Both heroines have fathers who have let them down and whose failures created the evils facing their daughters; both fathers redeem themselves in the end. Both girls are strong, determined personalities struggling against overwhelming odds in a game played by nasty, adult rules. Both books celebrate the direct, emotional truth of children and contrast a child's desire for what is right with the messiness of the adult world.

Although Juniper was written nearly thirty years ago it hasn't dated. Juniper is disabled: she has lost half of one arm. Her best friend, Ranjit Singh, knows all about racism and feeling an outsider in your home country. The adults are the mixture of goodness, badness, weakness and strength that real adults are. Kemp was a teacher. You feel, reading her books, that she must have been one of those excellent teachers who can change children's lives.

Holding my beloved copy again today, pouring through the pages, I'm newly astonished to see how slender this volume is. Kemp tells her story in 112 pages. And yet, as with all really good books, the story expands beyond the pages. There is so much here: so much poetry of language, of imagery, of emotion, of the thoughts and feelings of a quite extraordinary-ordinary twelve year old girl placed in an impossible situation.

Juniper is a mystery; an adventure about a girl in great danger who believes she no one but a tom cat and a chess-playing school mate to help her; a cracking story that compels you to turn pages full of deft, compact and visual writing. How can anyone not love a girl with one and a half arms who refuses to feel sorry for herself, who laughs and dances, fends off social services and well-meaning teachers, who keeps a tortoise and a hell-fire cat, who embraces hope and life and survives?

Juniper. Find a copy. Read her.



Juliet said...

Great, inspiring review. Must find a copy!

Penny Dolan said...

Yes, it is really interesting when you find - afterwards - unconscious homage to your own most admired authors in your own writing. Joan Aiken is one of my particular favourites.

I have just read both your magnificently gothic Castles and would agree that the inspirations come through.

Will look out for Juniper.

mermaidsdrown said...

This is one of my very favourite childhood books, I still have it and it is the one with the cover pictured above. I can't wait to give it to my daughter to read!

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