Saturday 19 October 2002
The Guardian - Online at Guardian Unlimited
On the one hand, the stakes are high for Clive Barker: this book has to follow some pretty tough acts. This is an extremely rich time for "young adult" fantasy books (by Philip Pullman, of course, along with the likes of Chris Wooding, Philip Reeves, Neil Gaiman and others). On the other, as well as knowing that this is Barker, dammit, you read Abarat already buoyed up by the times. You're eager to love this beautiful, heavy, richly coloured slab of a book. And, thankfully, it is easy to love.
It is the first of a promised quartet exploring the archipelago of Abarat. In outline the story is classic - bright child (Candy Quackenbush) bowed by grubby reality (Chickentown, USA) escapes into astonishing fantasyland, meets strange companions, and embarks on quest. However, many things make Abarat stand apart.
Unlike most classics of this kind, Abarat starts with a prologue in the fantasyland itself, tracking an incomprehensible conversation between three of its inhabitants, before we meet Candy. In other words, we do not fall down a rabbit hole into the magic kingdom with our protagonist: we know about the magic already, and have to wait for her to catch up. This is a double-edged sword. What is inevitably lost is the first astonishment - the sense of awe as we step out of the Kansas house with our child-avatar into a Technicolor Oz.
But something is also gained. By introducing Candy to what we have already seen, the solipsism of childhood is undercut: there is no room for this to be only a dream. The moral and philosophical stakes are raised: actions have consequences in what must be a real, though alternate, world. A foundation of ethical seriousness is established, which is not too badly undermined by intimations of Candy's "destiny" - an annoying trope impossible to pull off except at the cost of the characters' agency.
For the most part, people will read this book for the setting, and for the monsters. The narrative takes the reader to some of the 25 islands of Abarat: each of them, in a mystical way, is an hour of the day, and one is the time outside time. The story appears to revolve around Candy's impending struggle with Christopher Carrion, Lord of Midnight, and his attempts to establish eternal night. But in fact, nothing is so simply moralistic in Barker's universe. In a subtle subversion, Barker quietly begins to intimate that the "dark lord" may not be the problem at all: it may be the ambitious, urbane Rojo Pixler, capitalist extraordinaire, whose cheery brand the Commexo Kid is spreading through Abarat with all the vigour of Starbucks.
But though the intricacies of the political machinations are well done, and there is plenty of foreshadowing to keep us coming back, Abarat is not a book in which plot is paramount. Above all, this is a deeply lovely catalogue of the strange. Islands carved into colossal heads, giant moths made of coloured ether, words that turn into aeroplanes, tentacled maggot-monsters: they dance past like a carnival, a true surrender to the weird, vastly more inventive than the tired figures that visit some bespectacled boy-wizards. The joy is that all these imagined things are enthusiastically illustrated by Barker himself.
Barker's art is not the carefully drafted work of, say, Maurice Sendak or Walter Moers. Instead, the rich oil paintings that fill Abarat are muscular, expressionist, often frightening: unconstrained by mimetic realism or cutesy-pie kiddy-lit condescension. Apparently, the sight of these paintings alone led Disney to buy the movie rights to Abarat for tankerloads of money.
The heart sinks a bit when one reads in small print that the "logo" (ie the title as rendered) is already copyrighted by Disney, and thinks of Barker's gorgeously painted (and named) monsters - John Mischief, the Criss-Cross Man, Mater Motley - being Little Mermaided up. There are plenty of aspects of the book, thankfully, that will resist domestication. My tenner, for example, says that if we meet Two-Toed Tom in the movie, he won't be the spiral-tattooed sailor whose proudly displayed photos of his "strange household" gently reveal him to be both non-monogamous and gay. It will also be interesting to see how Uncle Walt deals with Barker's none too subtle insinuations that the worst problem facing Abarat is the rise of monopoly capitalism. Unusually, this fantasyland has a political economy, and it's not feudalism-lite.
Barker is one of the few writers who has altered an entire field: more than anyone since Lovecraft, he has changed the shape, the corporeality of horror. It is therefore slightly surprising how unhorrific Abarat is. There are horrors, of course: but we aren't terrified (except, perhaps, by the hinted-at Lovecraftian presences in the deeps, which will rise in book four, I'd imagine). But even this is related to one of the book's strengths. You cannot have an unearthly terror who is also a protagonist. In Abarat, we spend time inside even "evil" Christopher Carrion's head. And what we therefore lose in terror, we more than make up for in intricacy and empathy. Abarat is a sumptuous and lovely thing. With beautiful pictures of monsters.
China Miéville's latest novel, The Scar, is published by Macmillan.