Thursday, January 25, 2007

L'Engle

It must be a long time since I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, because I’d forgotten most of it. I’d remembered it with some fondness, but a re-reading in the last few days shows that it starts off a lot better than it finishes. The first two thirds of the book bustles along at a great pace, but somewhere in the last third it loses momentum, and the ending is quite weak. I was reading along, thinking ‘this is going to lead to a great climax’ and then realised there were only half a dozen pages left. Meg’s rescue, on her own, of her precocious little brother, hinges on her being able to love him more than the strength of the darkness can brainwash him, and it’s over in a few sentences. It’s rather like the ending of the first Harry Potter book, where, after an enormous effort to get there, Harry seems to manage to deal with Voldermort in a matter of seconds. (The scriptwriter for the film realised this problem and gave a lot more room to the climax).

Still, L’Engle’s famous book has lots of charm, and, when it was published, was no doubt quite a wind change in the children’s publishing industry. It expected children to cope with long words and interesting concepts, including something that it took the general adult market another decade or more to deal with, in Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

I don’t know that I ever quite believe in the little brother, Charles Wallace (he’s called by this double-barrelled name throughout for some reason); he’s too perceptive to be true, and considering that his father only knew him as a toddler, and then was away for one or two years, the child can only be three or four. In spite of that, L’Engle gives him wise things and almost-adult things to say, and it’s hard to get a picture of him in your head. In fact, apart from saying that when he sits on a chair his feet dangle six inches from the floor, we’re not given much indication how big or old he is. Which is helpful to L’Engle, but a little annoying to the reader. Precocious children seem to delight some American authors. They’re not very true, and rather indicate that the author hasn’t looked lately at the average three or four-year-old. I have, and they ain’t much like this! Half the time you’re lucky if you can understand what it is they’re trying to get at, and I’m talking about the intelligent ones. In the end you get a picture of Charles Wallace in your head that makes him about seven, and you have to ignore L’Engle’s insistence that he must be a lot younger.

I still like L’Engle as a writer, though she can be annoyingly waffly at times. I read a much later book of hers a couple of years ago. The romance aspect of it was plain awful, in spite of the book as a whole having some very good writing. Think the book was Troubling a Star and it was about a girl going to Antarctica on a boat with a number of rather suspicious people – rather too many suspicious people, but never mind. Her autobiographical books suffer from a bit of waffle too, but there are so many gems amongst the waffle that you can accept the waffle and ignore it.
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