What a pleasure it is to see the best of a former generation of children’s novels being re-published electronically. Pauline Fisk’s Midnight Blue was overall winner of the Smarties prize in 1990 and its limpidly beautiful language stands the test of time. “Above her the music of the lonely pipe, the only sound left in the whole world, drew her on until she prepared to hit the very rooftop of the sky itself. Then the smooth sky puckered into cloth-of-blue and drew aside for her, like curtains parting. The music called again and she passed straight though.”
We meet Bonnie on the first day of her new life with her mother, Maybelle. It’s taken all of Bonnie’s life to date for bullied single-mother Maybelle to assert herself sufficiently to spring her daughter from the horrors of Grandbag (I love that name) and spiteful Aunt Doreen. Their flat in Highholly House is neither distinctive nor especially salubrious but Maybelle has laid in supplies of red and yellow paint: has spent far more than is sensible on a huge plant in a pot with ridiculous floppy leaves and is all set to make a happy home.
If only Grandbag will leave them alone.
She won’t of course. Grandbag is a figure of Dahlesque proportions and I could almost have done with more of her. Her influence has marred both her own daughters’ lives and she is determined to keep her granddaughter in thrall. Bonnie’s earliest memories are of Grandbag’s skinny finger poking though the bars of her cot as if she were a little Hansel being fattened for the oven. When Grandbag arrives to see how Maybelle is coping (ie to ensure her failure) Bonnie is out of the window and down the fire escape without a moment’s hesitation. In the best tradition of children’s literature she discovers an ivy-covered hole in the ancient flint wall that is hidden in the holly-grove. Aunt Doreen is left baffled and Bonnie’s independent adventures begin.
In her note to this new edition Pauline Fisk recalls writing Midnight Blue when she was already the mother of five children under 11 years old. There are one or two moment when a maternal kindliness peeps through the plot. Children in literature are frequently hard-hearted about abandoning their parents for the adventures that will enable them to confront the challenges of life without an adult safety-net. A parent, reading, may be distracted by sympathy for the anguished adult left behind. Bonnie is initially sent back to her mother by a neighbour. “If it were a story it wouldn’t matter what Maybelle thought. But this is real life and it does matter and you can’t.” It’s reassuring that, when Bonnie does take off for the world beyond the sky, the neighbour is left behind to offer Maybelle comfort. Midnight Blue is a kindly book.
“Shropshire,” writes Fisk, “is the unspoken hero of Midnight Blue.” Its status as a border county is unobtrusively appropriate for this story of contiguous worlds and Fisk’s softly colour-filled writing brings to mind Housman’s famous phrases “the blue remembered hills” and “the land of lost content”. Once she has passed through the rip in the sky, Bonnie finds herself in a mirror world of old-fashioned farmland and gently bulging hills complete with folklore. In this idyllic world she discovers important truths about herself – most notably that her own capacity for hatred, primarily Grandbag-inspired, – is the real enemy she has to challenge. There are moral and behavioural messages within this story, as there are in most quest fiction but they are rarely obtrusive unless expressed by Bonnie herself as part of her increasing self-knowledge.
I read Midnight Blue almost immediately after Moira Young’s Blood Red Road, a debut novel for children that has won this year’s Costa Prize. These two award-winning novels share a number of features that would make a fascinating compare-and-contrast exercise. The red vs the blue. How fortunate that Pauline Fisk’s e-edition allows children and adults to make a choice. Or better still, read both.
Reviewed by Julia Jones.
Midnight Blue is available as Kindle
Find out about Pauline Fisk