Monday, 5 November 2007

Not Just a Dystopian Fairy Tale

Piper, my friend Meg Harper’s latest book for children came out last week and I immediately pounced on it in the Waterstone's ‘Recommended New Books’ section and carried it home to promote it to the top of the ‘to be read’ pile. Well, what’s the point of having writerly friends if you can’t show them rank preference in reading chronology?

The book’s central character, Tanith, is very much a child of our troubled times. With parents dead of ‘the sickness’ (a malaise which pervades the book but is never explained, it hovers over the narrative like a symbol of all the sicknesses of our world) she has been brought up by her grandmother. Now, with the old lady dead in their cold little cottage, Tanith is escaping the dubious care of the system by fleeing to ‘the city’. So far so twenty-first century gritty realism.

But wait, there are other layers here. Archetypes are abroad. The Mentor, aka wise old woman, grandmother, may die as the story begins but the moral influence of her goodness - not to mention the horrifying story she tells Tanith - suffuses the story.
Then there’s Tanith herself. She may be fleeing the system but she is also the Hero (in this case, obviously, heroine) on a quest. Not only must she retain her independence and not disappear into the system of drudgery which awaits her if she is captured but she must, somehow, do something with the awful information her grandmother has given her.

As Tanith makes her way under cover of darkness towards the city, we meet the Shapeshifter – the person who cannot readily be understood or trusted. In Piper he is Crow, the beautiful, charismatic boy who seems to be morally good and altruistic but whom Tanith suspects is not what he appears. After all, did he not try, at their first meeting, to steal her dog?

Wulfie, Tanith’s wolfhound, stands for all that is good, pure and loyal in the book. He will die for her if necessary and she goes to great lengths to protect him, even having to make a decision, at one crucial point in the book as to whether she will put his life above human lives.

As tension mounts in Tanith’s quest, we meet the last archetype - the Shadow – the representative of all that is bad in our lives. In Piper, he calls himself The Boss and is, if you like, the ‘villain’ of the book. But to call him that does the book a total disservice because Piper is much darker, richer and more complex than a simple hero/villain tale. There is no sense in this story that if The Boss is vanquished all will be well. This is not Harry Potter’s world where, once Voldemort is defeated, all reverts to sunshine and light. (And, I may point out, I say this as a major HP fan, having read all the books at least twice, four times in the case of the Goblet of Fire.)

The sense of evil in Piper is much more pervasive than anything attached to a single character could ever be. The Boss is a symptom of the moral decay and social collapse in the book. Take him out of the equation and there would still be a thousand more like him. He and his henchmen are not the architects of the awful situation in which the privileged Cratz and the underclass Citz live their disparate lives, they are the ugly, immoral consequences of it.

Because, just as at the heart of the Pied Piper story there is the awful image of a town overrun with rats (and there is a skin-crawlingly realistic passage in the book depicting exactly that) at the heart of Piper there is a world gone horribly wrong. And it is our world. A world where street children are shot like vermin. A world where children who should be in kindergarten work adult hours. A world in which the earth is beginning to refuse to grow things. A world of division where the Cratz sit in their ‘suburban enclaves’ (read gated communities, private hospitals, fee-paying schools, black-windowed 4 x 4s, anything which keeps the privileged out of the grubby reach of the underprivileged) while the Citz eke out their squalid, amoral existence in the gutter, turning on each other in a desperate desire simply to survive.

Piper is many things – a reworking of an old fairy tale, a modern dystopian fantasy, a love story, an elegy for Meg Harper’s late mother amongst others – but it is also very satisfying. Though the battle is won (though in a fashion arrived at only by the moral compromises necessitated by the society in which the characters live) the war rages on and we wonder whether we will see Tanith and Crow again.

1 comment:

Meg Harper said...

Alis, I am more moved than I can say that you have taken the time to write this and then published it on your blog! It is a very wonderful thing to feel that one's writing has been so understood and appreciated. Thank you so much.