Abi Elphinstone’s debut novel The Dreamsnatcher, published earlier this year by Simon and Schuster, moves at a breakneck pace. You’ve got to have your Weetabix to keep up with the adventures of Moll and Gryff, and no mistake.
It begins with a spooky prologue, where we’re introduced to a shady circle of characters engaged in something altogether nefarious, and the dreadful punishment meted out on one of their number who refuses to ‘play ball.’ The spooky, almost slow-moving feel is ripped away in chapter one, however, as the story plunges us straight into the mind and life of Moll Pecksniff, the book’s dauntless heroine, as she struggles to fight her way out of a terrible nightmare. Every night, Moll is visited by a dream in which she hears drums and snares, and she feels a pull towards a nameless terror – and the dreams have been getting worse. When she wakes, far from home, and realises that the lure of the snare and the drum has made her sleepwalk straight into danger, she is afraid of the growing power of the dream.
But she’s also brave and resourceful and pig-headed, in the best possible sense. Her beloved cob, Jinx, has been stolen, and she unhesitatingly ventures into certain danger in order to rescue him, leaving herself open to huge risk. Moll and her gypsy family live in Tanglefern Forest, in the part known as the Ancientwood. Another camp, headed by the witch-doctor Skull, lives in the Deepwood, across the river. It is to this camp that Jinx has been brought, and this is where Moll must go to get him back. But there’s more to Skull than mere horse-thievery; he is also a powerful witch-doctor, and it is he who has been calling to Moll through her dreams all her life. The closer she gets to his camp, the nearer she comes to his dangerous magic and the more thoroughly she gets wrapped up in his spell. But what is Skull’s link to Moll’s painful past, and why has he been trying, all her life, to entice her to come to him?
There is a huge amount to admire in this punchy little story. Moll, whose green eyes set her apart from the rest of her gypsy camp, has lived with Oak and his wonderful (tea-towel wielding) wife Mooshie all her life, and has been raised with as much love as any of their natural children. However, she knows that her parents died when she was tiny, but has never known the true details behind their deaths until mid-way through this story, when their sad history is explained to her. Her sense of betrayal, and being lied to, is painful and palpable at first, but she soon recovers her sense of herself, knowing that her parents were true gypsies and people with great power, who loved her dearly. As she uncovers who she is, and who her parents were, the horrible reality of Skull’s desire to destroy her grows stronger and stronger and she must fight back with everything she has, including the newfound friendship of Alfie, a boy from Skull’s camp whom she isn’t sure she can trust – but who works hard to prove his loyalty and courage. I loved the relationships between the characters, the symbiosis with which they all live in the woods, the details of their gypsy lifestyle, their love for nature and their animals, and the unbreakable bond of family and loyalty and clan which tie them all together. It’s a true ‘all for one, one for all’ scenario. When Moll is threatened, the whole camp closes protectively around her, and that was beautiful. Sometimes it threatens to take the narrative focus off Moll herself, and I did feel at times that she was being kept out of the heart of the action as others fought for her, but she’s a fearless, generous and loving character nonetheless.
The real strength in the book is in its characters, who are fabulously well imagined – at least, the members of Moll’s camp. Skull’s henchmen tend to blend a little, but that is the nature of henchmen the world over! Oak and Mooshie are wonderful, as is Alfie and Cinderella Bull and Siddy, Moll’s best friend (though it was his pet earthworm, Porridge the Second, who really stole my heart), and Moll’s relationship with her beloved wildcat Gryff, who – though he’s shown at all times as a wild animal, one who does his own thing and comes and goes of his own free will – is always a steadfast companion to Moll and his connection to her is deep, mysterious and moving. Near the book’s end he’s involved in a dangerous scene which had me crossing my fingers as I read, which really showed me how much emotion was invested in this quietly powerful animal character. There are puzzles strewn throughout the book, and rhymes which are packed with clues, which should entice and intrigue any 9-12 reader, and the tinges of supernatural goings-on intermingled with the very real life of the camp are fascinating, too. For me, as an adult reader, there were some plot points which seemed ‘smoothed-over’ and explained away, particularly towards the novel’s end, but these aren’t things a child reader would be concerned by. I also loved the details here which hint at other books – the child/daemon connection from His Dark Materials which is echoed in Moll and Gryff’s relationship, and the touches of Aslan in Gryff’s portrayal, at times – and so the book has something to offer to its target audience and to the older reader, too.
A fresh and engaging story, this book is set to become a firm favourite, and deserves its place on the shelf beside the works of Michelle Paver, Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis. Recommended.
(A sequel to this book is set for publication next year, and it seems as though the story will be told in a trilogy – so, good news for MG readers!)