To be honest, Carroll had me at ‘darkling’. As Alice, her teenage heroine, says, there’s something spooky about it, ‘It’s a funny word. Old-sounding.’ And then it was the marvellous cover. Fortunately for my high expectations, the rest of the book was brilliant.
Alice has come to stay with her spiky and solitary grandmother at Darkling Cottage because her mother is in hospital with Alice’s seriously ill younger brother, and Alice’s father had left the family some years before. She hasn’t met her paternal grandmother, Nell, before, and the gloomy cottage with a ropey mobile signal is not where Alice wants to be right now. The cottage is made all the more gloomy by the encroaching Darkling Wood at the bottom of the garden, woods that Nell intends to have felled. And it is here that the novel’s magic truly begins.
Alice’s narrative is accompanied by the letters another girl is writing to her brother in 1918. The war is over, and Florence is desperately hoping her brother comes home from the front soon. The two girls’ stories intertwine, with themes and relationships overlapping cleverly. Both girls find themselves hoping against hope that their brothers survive, and both are increasingly aware that the fairies at the bottom of the garden will shape events. For this is where Carroll’s novel has that extra bit of wonder about it – she is able to move between the worlds of scientific developments and magic so very plausibly as far as her characters are concerned. These fairies are powerful natural elements and you would do best not to anger them.
The novel becomes one about hope, often against the odds, even if that means believing in something you can’t see. As Alice says later on in a history class, talking about Arthur Conan Doyle’s willing ness to believe in the Cottingley fairy pictures, ‘So maybe, with so much horrible stuff going on, well, perhaps no one knew what was real any more. And it made them feel better if they could hope for something different and better. It made them feel less miserable.’ It’s hard not to read with our current situation always at the back of my mind, but a story with a strong sense of hope is always one to treasure. Waterstones stock it in their 9-12 range but this I loved it too.