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The Weird Way the Memory works
on 25 June 2014
I first read this book when I was eighteen (around 1982) and working in a library. Always on the lookout for good books, I read this because a colleague recommended it, saying she had read it at school and 'it was one of her favourite books'. I remember thinking that it had a distinctive atmosphere, which seemed at the time quite magical and unusual. Garner seemed to have done something exceptional - created a genuinely original work of fantasy which was exciting in a way other fantasy books I'd read at the time weren't.
So, thirty years later, again on the look-out for a good read, and having listened to my husband raving about The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen which he recalled from his childhood, I decided to download it onto my kindle and have another read. And I'm afraid that somehow it no longer seems original or distinctive. In fact, it reads like a weak Tolkein knock-off, as if written by someone who wanted to do a 'Lord Of The Rings' but couldn't be arsed to do all that work, so decided to create a much shorter version. It has all the cliches: the elderly wise-man wizard, the weirdstone itself (not far from the notion of a ring of power), brave and slightly comical dwarfs, mysterious and beautiful elves who save the day when least expected. And its protagonists are two children called Colin and Susan (they even have boring middle-class names, not much better than 'Janet and John') who must surely be the most personality-less characters in children's literature. This was my most serious gripe: Colin and Susan are so under-developed as characters as to be utterly anonymous 'brave types' from the Sword and Sorcery Handbook Of Stereotypes. They don't behave like any children I know - they never complain, they are unfailingly brave, they never argue, they do their chores round the farm without question (even though we are led to believe that they aren't used to farm-work), they have no discernible inner lives whatsoever, they don't read or watch TV or stuff their faces with sweets or moan. Like Enid Blyton children (who actually have more personality), they appear to be accepted without question into a close-knit rural community where there appears to be no other children, and no one bullies them, except the supernatural characters. And of course they are allowed to roam around for hours and hours alone in a place they don't know at all and that they've been told is dangerous - I can't imagine my mum letting us do this as children. The dialogue they are given is unconvincingly wooden. They have no backstory; we learn nothing really about why their parents have dumped them with Bess, who seems peculiarly happy to take on two children she hasn't seen for years even though she is very busy with the daily drudgery of the farm. I'm sorry if I seem pedantic here but this stuff matters - or it does to me. The story had a lot of holes that weren't filled.
The book has some real strengths as well. The journey underground is fabulous (and that is what stayed with me after my first reading, all those years ago), and the character of Gowther is also excellently drawn. I liked the villains - Grimnir, the Morthbrood, the scarecrow people, the mara, the goblins - and the harp-playing water people. These were all highly imaginative (if slightly derivative). The sense of place is still thrilling - I felt like I'd visited Alderley Edge after reading the book.
But it left far too many questions unanswered. The ending was too sudden. I'm hoping the sequel will answer these questions, but I wouldn't be reading that if I wasn't currently bored. Diana Wynne Jones, who I believe was a contemporary of Garner and also wrote fantasy, seems to me to take a much more imaginative approach - what might be called a female-approach. I complained to my husband that Colin and Susan were cardboard cutouts and he said 'That's why I liked it when I was a kid. Boys don't want all that character-stuff clogging up the story', and maybe this is the problem. Wynne Jones seems to me to also manage to have plot-driven novels, which often cover the same ground (the morrigan in Time Of The Ghost, for instance), but the characters are much more believable, human and interesting, which makes a massive difference, to me at least. But male writers like Neil Gaiman can bring the magical and mysterious into the real world without losing sight of character. And let's face it, Tolkein made his characters some alive - at least substantially more than Garner does.
In the end, I think you have to accept Garner on his own terms. He was a pioneer by all accounts, even though this book seems so derivative to me now - he was one of the writers who paved the way for others to do better, take it further. And he is very good at creating a sense of place and an air of mystery and magic. I could definitely do without the Tolkeinesque dialogue, however.