As a long-time fan of The Decemberists, I was very excited to hear that lead singer Colin Meloy had written a novel. So excited, that rather than wait for the UK release, I ordered a copy from the US. I have to say my excitement was a little premature. 'Wildwood' is a book that has 'Debut Novelist' stamped right through it, like 'Blackpool' through a stick of rock.
The book is sumptuous to look at, and illustrated beautifully by Decemberist artwork collaborator Carson Ellis (who is also Meloy's partner and collaborator on their son Hank). There are a number of colour plates and numerous black and white illustrations, all in Ellis' distinctive style. This is the third beautifully illustrated book I've read in the last few months. One can't help feeling that if print is going to fight back against e-books then it's with creations such `Wildwood' where it has the edge.
Unfortunately the story doesn't quite do the drawings justice. Anyone who likes Meloy's narrative driven lyrics will love his prose. It's evocative and playful, just like the best of his songs, but at over 500 pages 'Wildwood' is far too long.
'Wildwood' is a mash-up of Lewis Carroll, Narnia and Wind in the Willows, with a huge dollop of traditional fairy-tale stirred into the pot. These are lofty acts to follow, and Meloy falls short. 'Wildwood' is set in the US in the author's hometown of Portland, Oregon. This however is not Portland OR as we might know it. Across from the city over the Willamette River is the 'Impassable Wilderness', an enormous tract of land that adults refuse to talk about; a mysterious place about which children tell far-fetched tales.
The novel opens with twelve year old Prue's, baby brother Mac being stolen by crows. She chases after them, but cannot keep up, and they disappear over the river into the Wilderness. Prue sets out to rescue Mac accompanied by irritating misfit classmate Curtis (Who has a more than passing resemblance to Meloy - they even have the same initials).
Inside, the Wilderness is a peculiar melange of the rustic and modern. The motor car exists, but weaponry has yet to advance beyond the musket. Some humans live there, but most of the Wildwood's denizen are anthropomorphised animals. Prue narrow escapes the clutches of a ferocious coyote army, encounters many talking animals including Eagles, Owls, Foxes and Squirrels. There are also bandits, bureaucrats and black magic thrown in too.
And that for me is Wildwood's big problem. There are too many ideas. Some are very good, some are mundane, and some are interesting twists on storytelling clichés, but there are just too many of them. Bearing in mind this is a novel aimed at children possibly as young as ten, the book is very slow in starting. After the initial excitement of Baby Mac's abduction, very little happens for two hundred pages. The novel should have been much slimmer especially considering its target audience.
The final 300 pages are much stronger (and almost make the previous 200 redundant). Here the story is exciting. Meloy blends folk lore and magic into his tale well, and whilst there are definitely some heroics, few of his characters are stereotypical heroes. There is some interesting blurring of boundaries between `good' and `evil' that should cause an inquisitive child to question the rights and wrongs of their own world.
I enjoyed sections of 'Wildwood', particularly the final pages, which deliver a satisfying tale of redemption and self-discovery. This is a novel brimming with ideas that ultimately succeeds, but not before being stifled by its own ambition. It's not the classic I had hoped for, but much as the Decemberists' albums have improved with the band's maturity, hopefully Meloy will have further opportunities to hone his literary craft.