Oh, what a fantastic book to get the Review-O-Scope warmed up for 2015…
The Imaginary is a charming and beautiful book, a work of art in every sense. It features beautiful illustrations throughout, and it has one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve ever seen. It was love at first sight with this book, I’ll admit. I caught one shy glance, and that was it. My heart was stolen. The story could have been nonsense inside, and I’d still have loved it.
Luckily, however, the story is most definitively not nonsense.
In this perfect little book, we meet a girl named Amanda Shuffleup. She lives with her mother in a house which seems ramshackle and higgledy-piggledy (though perhaps that’s just how I thought of it), and she has an imagination which is as real and vibrant to her as everyday life. She is an only child, but she is never lonely or bored, mainly because her brain never ceases conjuring up adventures and death-defying scenarios for her to work her way out of. Then, one day, Amanda comes in from playing outside, and she opens her wardrobe door, and she hangs her coat up on a boy. A strange boy. One who wasn’t there before.
This doesn’t strike Amanda as all that unusual. She continues thinking about her immediate problem, which is the fact that she’s wearing wet shoes, with swollen-shut laces, and if she can’t find a genius way of unpicking the knots and getting them off, she’ll be left wearing the shoes forever and her feet will never grow, just like the bonsai tree she saw once at school. It’s only when her mother comes upstairs to berate her for tracking mud all over the house, dripping water everywhere and taking a scissors to her shoelaces that Amanda realises the boy in her wardrobe doesn’t appear to be visible to anyone but her.
Still. This is only slightly odd. It doesn’t stop Amanda and the boy – whose name, he discovers when he says it, is Rudger – from becoming instant friends.
Amanda and Rudger set off on their adventures. In the course of their playing, the den they construct in the garden becomes all manner of things. including the surface of a far-off planet or the gondola of a hot-air balloon or the inside of an igloo. During the course of their fearless escapades, they are watched over by Amanda’s cat, Oven, who is often dragged into the games against his will.
One day, the front doorbell rings when Amanda and Rudger are exploring a cave complex in the living room. A strange man is at the door, one who speaks oddly and who is dressed even more oddly, and who is accompanied by a little girl with a pale face. He is Mr Bunting, and Amanda soon works out that the little pale-faced girl is more than she appears – just as with Rudger, only Amanda can see her. Amanda shrugs it off, telling Rudger that the man must have an imaginary friend, too, just like Rudger is to her.
Days later, Amanda’s mum goes out, leaving Amanda (and Rudger, of course) in the care of Goldie, the babysitter. During the course of the evening, very scary things begin to take place in the house – the power is disconnected, and in the darkness strange people appear. Strange people who want to hurt Rudger, to take him from Amanda, who try to drag him out the window and away. But when Rudger tries to tell Amanda about what happened, she doesn’t believe him, and he retreats to his wardrobe in a huff.
The following day, they still haven’t made up from this argument when something even more dramatic happens – something which has the power to separate Rudger and Amanda forever. Naturally, it’s connected to the strange man who came calling to Amanda’s house. Who is Mr Bunting, and his strange pale-faced companion, and what do they want? And how can Rudger help Amanda when their connection is weakening, and she is beginning to forget him?
Well. This story is beautiful. I had an imaginary friend as a child (though, in truth, it was probably more my imagined version of Elliott, the boy from the movie E.T., than a true imaginary friend), and I was always a kid who could quite happily amuse themselves for hours on end simply by retreating into thought. Amanda and I have a lot in common, I think. I loved Rudger, too, and his courage, not to mention his intelligence, and I loved Amanda’s mother (whose story, near the end of the book, did cause me to shed a tear or two). I loved the concept behind the story, which is the importance of imaginary friends and the inevitable sorrow that comes when, as the child grows, ‘the imaginary’ starts to fade away. I loved the terrifying Mr Bunting (genuinely, he made me shudder) and the bits in the house when the power goes out and Roger is attacked made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I adored the ending, which is perfect. The artwork is beautiful, the production of the book is simply gorgeous, and the writing is crisp and impeccable. This book took me about an hour to read – it’s not long, and it’s not taxing, but it is one of the most memorable pieces of fiction I’ve come across. The Imaginary is a treasure. I’m delighted to have it in my collection, and I’m doubly delighted it’s my first book review of the New Year. One of my favourite aspects of it is that part of it (a very important part) takes place in a library, which is, as we all know, the best source of imaginaries in the world…
Highly recommended for children of all ages, everywhere.