And suddenly all that’s left is a pile of clothes, the person within them gone, just like that.
The stuff of stories? Oh yes, indeed.
So how can it be happening here in the real world?
Abrupt, unexplained disappearances – curiously only of adults – start occurring the day an abandoned baby is discovered in a bookshop. What’s the connection between the two and will fact or fantasy be better able to unravel the truth and make the world safe once more?
Malcom McNeill’s The Beginning Woods explores the limits, dangers and enchantments of science and story, following one boy’s quest to try to understand who he is and where he comes from, by crossing from the physical world into the imagined world of story books. In doing so Max experiences first hand the painful boundary where truth and dreams sometimes collide, revealing knowledge that is hard to bear.
With intricate storytelling reminiscent of Timothée de Fombelle (Vango) or Margo Lanagan (Tender Morsels), the linguistic richness of Frances Hardinge (The Lie Tree) and themes in which fans of Funke’s Inkheart or Ende’s Neverending Story will luxuriate, The Beginning Woods is a vibrant and sumptuous tapestry of a tale: multi-layered, highly imaginative, full of opportunities for story lovers to spot snippets of their favourites skilfully inserted, with a dazzling array of characters and an ambitious plot which asks big questions and provides few easy answers. It is hard to believe this is a début novel.
I gorged myself on this feast in just 24 hours. I was utterly beguiled by its playfulness, its nods to those who populate other books I’ve read and loved, its magnificent richness, exploring the value and appeal of science, and the magic and hope that comes with imagination. It asks intense and eloquent questions about what is real and how we work that out. Indeed, every few pages I found myself marking passages I simply wanted to swim in. Whilst McNeill is not the first to sing a paean to the power of stories and sharing those stories, his voice is nevertheless fresh, exciting and utterly exhilarating.
For a short while in the central section of the book I found myself flagging a little, with the weave of the narrative briefly unravelling, but should you get lost in the woods like I briefly did, don’t give up! You’ll finish this book and feel like you’ve woken from a deep, refreshing sleep full of incredible, slightly unsettling, breathtaking dreams and your life in the real world will never be quite the same again.
Storybooks play a special role in The Beginning Woods and when we first encounter them, they are described thus:
It was the size of a church Bible, the kind of book that might rest open on a reading stand in the centre of a Wizard’s laboratory.
He got down on his knees and reached out to place his hands on the darkness of the book’s cover, afraid they might slide into that inky surface as into a pool of water. Instead they encountered the smoothness of polished wood. Sturdy brass hinges held the cover in place, while the spine was a thick strap of leather, dotted with the heads of tiny nails […] The book had retained the mark of its origin – a tree somewhere in a forest – and so it seemed wild and alive.
Like it hadn’t just been made.
Like it had grown.
Much later on we enter an incredible room filled with such Storybooks, a room I myself would love to enter:
All of the Storybooks on all of the shelves were lit up from within like lanterns. The light filled them and flowed around them. Something was going on in that light too, some kind of process. It wasn’t a lazy sunbeam sort of light. It was flickering excitedly, flaring out now and again from some Storybooks, dimming in others, but always changing and never for a moment still, rippling form one shelf to another.
These images grew and grew inside me and in the end I had to try making them real, making my own flickering Storybook.
In my head I had the idea to create a tea-light holder in the shape of a book. I used air-drying clay to make the book cover, leather spine, pages and hinge, decorating them to match my interpretation of their descriptions by scoring lightly with a knife and then painting them when the clay was dry.
I created a separate base for the book, to hold the tea-light, and over which the “book” could be slotted.
And here it is, lit up at night!
I think I shall have to make many more of these as the light really is magical, but not quite enough to read by, and I do so like the idea of reading by the light of these Storybooks.
Ezra Pound wrote “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand“. The Beginning Woods made me feel intensely alive. It is indeed a book full of light in one’s hands.
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by its publisher, Pushkin Press.