Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

Devilskein and DearloveTitle: Devilskein & Dearlove
Author: Alex Smith
Published: July 2014
Publisher: Umuzi
Source: review copy from publisher
Genre: fantasy, middle-grade
Rating: 8/10

When Erin Dearlove arrived at Van Riebeeck Heights to live with her reluctant Aunt Kate, the neighbours all said she was an obnoxious brat, too thin, spoiled, wild-looking, and with a habit of speaking like she’d swallowed a dictionary. They were pretty spot on. Her face was scrawny, her sandy amber hair unbrushed, she used convoluted vocabulary with spite, and she never smiled, because she had no parents. (7)

Erin’s parents were killed in a horrific home invasion, but she tells people they were eaten by a crocodile, and she “found bits of them on the shaggy white carpet of our designer home” (7). Surly and snooty, she shuns the other children in the apartment block. In an impulsive attempt to spite them, she tries to befriend Mr Devilskein, the demon in apartment 6616.

Devilskein is a Companyman, who locks up the souls people bargained with. In his apartment are six doors, each of which lead to another six doors, each with six more doors…. And Devilskein guards the key to every one. He is supposed to keep the keys mixed up so that no one ever has a hope of reclaiming their soul, but Devilskein is a bit of a romantic, and cannot “resist the poetry of classifying his keys according to the Dewey decimal system” (44).

That said, he’s still a cruel, dangerous creature. When he sees the shining beauty of Erin’s soul and realises that she has a living soulmate too, he decides to steal her heart to replace his own ailing one, thereby giving himself another thousand years of life. He lets her into his fantastical apartment, where she meets the charming talking cricket Zhou (once a fifteen-year-old envoy from the China’s Mongol Empire), reads the lost works of William Shakespeare, swims in an underwater paradise, and tries to restore the dying section of a beautiful Chinese garden. It’s a dark retelling of The Secret Garden by Frances Jodgson Burnett, but set in the present day, on Cape Town’s famous Long Street.

Devilskein & Dearlove is a lovely piece of fiction. It has all the charm and whimsy of my favourite kinds of children’s fiction, but it’s also dark and unafraid of being brutal. It had me hooked from the first page, when we meet the first of the wonderful characters in the story. Erin would be a difficult child to handle in person, but on the page I immediately cared about her. Her arrogance is so clearly a shield for her immense grief that it’s easy to empathise with her no matter how rudely she snaps at others. When the other kids tell her about the mythical Devilskein, it’s her grief that draws her to his fearsome nature: “Whatever he looked like, she doubted anything could out-monster her hidden-away grief… if he really was a proper monster (not just a hideous recluse), perhaps he could swallow her and her stupid sad heart up” (22).

Devilskein is a combination of unnervingly likeable monstrosity. He looks scary – there are tiny words carved into his face, and he’s missing an ear. He lets Erin  in only because he literally wants to steal her heart. He’s a demon with an apartment full of souls, and on top of that he’s hiding a very twisted, dangerous secret. But he also has a big brown poodle named Calvados, he’s good friends with Zhou the cricket, and he loves his vast library of keys like a bibliophile loves signed limited editions. We’re told that “[t]hough thoroughly cruel, he was also thoroughly cultured, and as much as he was lethal, he was equally a romantic” (44).

His unusual relationship with Erin gives her a sense of purpose and enlivens her with fantastical intrigue. She still avoids dealing with her grief, but she starts to come out of her shell of anger and arrogance, and take an interest in things. Her Aunt Kate plays a big role too. Although happily unmarried and child-free, Kate is remarkably patient and caring even when Erin is being difficult. She’s a successful artist, and helps Erin discover an uncanny talent for drawing.

Adding to the feel-good vibes is the immensely likeable Kelwyn, who responds to Erin’s hostility with unflappable friendliness:

The saviour of all manner of damaged frogs, snakes, insects and plants, Kelwyn did not have it in his nature to be petty; he was a generous, warm, good-humoured soul. Nevertheless, he did possess a naughty streak. (15)

Kelwyn teases Erin for being grumpy, but he’s terribly worried about her when she goes to Devilskein’s apartment, given the frightening rumours about him. We’re told early on that Kelwyn is Erin’s soulmate, which I found cheesy, but I couldn’t be too bothered what with Kelwyn being so likeable (he spends a lot of time rescuing dogs and cats around the neighbourhood) and all the quirky fantasy going on.

But it’s not all sunshine and happiness, and I wouldn’t like it if it was. Although Erin starts to recover, she never stops using the absurd story she made up about rich parents and a lavish home. If anything, it seems that, having discovered the wonders in Devilskein’s apartment, she’s letting the fantasy of her past replace the reality. Furthermore, Kelwyn really does have a very good reason to worry about her, not just because of Devilskein, but because Erin starts sneaking into his apartment and finding things that should stay locked away.

I don’t want to reveal more for fear of spoiling the story, but I will say that I love the way Smith handles it. Even as things start going well in Erin’s life, there’s an undercurrent of real danger. It’s not that I want her to suffer, but the threat gives the story intrigue and drive. It also gives weight to Erin’s decisions. She enters the story as a victim, lashing out in response to what has been done to her, but the story that follows happens because of the actions she is able to take. With the help of the people around her, she starts to take charge of her life rather than wallowing in misery. Many of her choices are good, but some of her behaviour is decidedly unhealthy, and she makes some awful mistakes. And one of the things I really love about this book is how seriously it takes Erin’s decisions. What she does has real consequences, whether good, bad or catastrophic. She doesn’t get off easily just because that would be nice and this is a children’s novel.

What also brings this book to life is the way it’s filled with the sounds and activities of Long Street. It’s set almost entirely in the apartment block, and Smith frequently adds in the sounds the characters would be hearing – the traffic outside, the howling South Easter, a baby crying, a boy throwing a ball against the wall. At any moment, the narrative might pause to give us a glimpse of what the non-POV characters are doing – Kate shaving her legs, Kelwyn tending to his plants, a neighbour cooking dinner. Rather than interrupting the tale, I thought these details helped flesh out the world of the novel.

If I have any criticisms of Devilskein & Dearlove, it’s only that the novel introduces a sense of vibrant cultural diversity that it then neglects. We learn that Van Riebeeck Heights is home to a diverse bunch of residents, much like Long Street and Cape Town as a whole. We’re told that Kelwyn’s best friend is a boy named Sipho, who rescues animals with him. But what we end up getting is a novel without any significant PoC characters. With the exception of Zhou the cricket, other cultures appear only through names or symbols (like the aroma of curry), and except for one brief appearance, Sipho is just a voice on a walkie-talkie.

That said, this is still one one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s enchanting, beautifully written and adventurous. I personally love how dark it can get, but also that it balances that out with simple pleasures and heartwarmingly happy moments. Highly recommended.

Review of Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Title: Ragnarok
Author: A.S. Byatt
Series: Canongate Myths
Published: First published 6 September 2011 by Canongate. This edition published 1 February
Publisher: Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic
Genre: mythology
My Rating: 9/10

Ragnarok is not quite the story that the blurb of my edition implies – a modern retelling of a Norse myth featuring a child living in the English countryside during World War Two. Rather, it is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young child reading and re-reading Asgard and the Gods, endlessly fascinated by its stories. The child – known only as “the thin child” – is not the focus of this book, but rather a means for Byatt to write for her “childhood self, and the way I had found the myths and thought about the world when I first read Asgard and the Gods”. In this manner, Byatt not only relates a set of rich, mysterious and beautiful mythical stories, but leads the reader through the musings about reading, storytelling, mythology and religion that occupy her philosophical young protagonist.

The thin child is a classic book lover and fantasy fan:

She devoured stories with rapacious greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting themselves into mountains, and trees, stars, moons and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing wolves, foxes and the dark.

She frequently reads late at night, under the covers with a torch, or in the sliver of light from her bedroom doorway. When we dive into the pages of Asgard and the Gods with her, we aren’t given the text of the book itself, but a rewritten version that recreates for us the same sense of awe that the thin child experiences. The feel of Ragnarok is partly a product of the Norse myths themselves, but mostly an effect of Byatt’s writing – it’s lush and vivid, bringing to life a bizarre world in which humans play no real part (they’re created after dwarves and elves and then promptly ignored). She also chooses to hold true to the style in which the myths were told. Most of the other authors who wrote for the Canongate Myths series chose “to assimilate the myths into the form of novels, or modern stories, retell the tales as though the people had personalities and psychologies”. Byatt however, writes something more akin to what she calls “raw myth”:

Gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities or characters in the way people in novels do. They do not have psychology […]. They have attributes – Hera and Frigg are essentially jealous, Thor is violent, Mars is warlike, Baldur is beautiful and gentle, Diana of Ephesus is fertile and virginal.

At the beginning we’re told of Yggdrasil, the World Ash and Rándrasil, the Sea-Tree. The thin child ponders the question of how something came from nothing, leading us to the Norse creation myth, wherein a giant is born from chaos and is later slain by the first gods, who dismember his body and use it to create the heavens and the earth. Later we learn about Asgard, home of the gods, and encounter the divinities themselves. There’s Odin, the sinister, damaged god who lost an eye drinking magical knowledge from a fountain. The thin child’s favourite character is Loki, “a being who was neither this nor that”, a trickster who alone among the gods possessed the ability to change his shape and even his sex. She admires his humour and wit, and finds his changeable shapes and cleverness attractive.

Byatt relates the stories that eventually lead up to Ragnarök, which “means the darkening of the Regin, i.e. of the gods, hence the Twilight of the Gods; some however explain the word Rök to mean Judgement, i.e. of the gods’”. The thin child likes Ragnarök because it a real, bloody ending not a cyclical one, and unlike the Christian stories, it’s not humans who are judged but the gods themselves. They are flawed and stupid in a disturbingly familiar human way – they “know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world”.

In reading Asgard and the Gods, the thin child contemplates the tropes of storytelling – the way prohibitions are there to be broken (like one God gave to Adam and Eve), the recurrence of the number three, the way the youngest of three children is always the most important, and how in every story something must go wrong and not even the gods are powerful enough to stop it. She notes how myth differs from the fairytales, and how “[t]hey cannot be explained and do not explain” but haunt her nevertheless “coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive”.

The thin child’s fascination with myth means that it becomes intertwined with the way she thinks about her own life. Her father – who’s been away at war for years – is portrayed as a mythical figure, fighting battles in the air in places that, for the thin child, exist only in books. She remembers him as having “red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god”. At church, she can’t help but compare the Norse myths to the Christian stories, and comes to the realisation that Christianity too, is a set of man-made myths, only far less interesting than the Norse ones. Consequently, she can’t believe in either, even if she can take pleasure in their stories. A particularly interesting illustration in Asgard and the Gods, when seen in relation to the landscape of her home, gives her an idea of how myths are created:

The picture gave the child an intense, uncanny pleasure. She knew, but could not have said, that it was the precise degree of formlessness in the nevertheless scrupulously depicted rocks that was so satisfactory. The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended. She had noticed that a bush, or a log, seen from a distance on her meadow-walk, could briefly be a crouching, snarling dog, or a trailing branch could be a snake, complete with shining eyes and flickering forked tongue. This way of looking was where the gods and giants came from.

In a shadow of the way Byatt loved Asgard and the Gods, her Ragnarok also gave me “an intense, uncanny pleasure”. She very beautifully achieves her aim of recreating a sense of the profound reading experience from her childhood. Ragnarok is an exquisite book that I feel I could re-read multiple times, savouring the details and letting myself be as enchanted as Byatt was. The eARC I received for this review will not be sufficient – this is a book I need to have in hardcover to grace my shelf for years.

Buy a copy of Ragnarok at The Book Depository