It might not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I, S.J. O’Hart, am rather a fan of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
Anyone who has seen this erudite gentleman’s work will know three things: he is rather tall; he has a mellifluous voice, and he is – or, at least, he gives the impression of being – quite intelligent. For all these reasons, he is, and shall remain, my mental image of the character of Charles Maxim, one of the central players in Katherine Rundell’s sophomore novel, ‘Rooftoppers.’
The aforementioned Maxim is a 6’3″ tall 36-year-old bachelor and scholar described as having “a voice that sounds like moonlight, if moonlight could talk.” He is a passenger on the ‘Queen Mary’, a liner which – as the novel opens – has just finished the process of sinking. He rescues a tiny baby from the water – she is floating in a cello case, which becomes a central image in the novel – and immediately decides to love and care for her as though she were his own. He names her Sophie, because it seems apt, and he holds on to her despite the disapproval of the National Childcare Agency and their continual attempts to remove her from him. Under his gentle, eccentric and utterly loving care, Sophie grows into a tall, confident and intelligent twelve-year-old who only has one thing lacking in her life – her mother, of whom she has distinct and inexplicable memories despite the fact that she was barely a year old when she last laid eyes on her.
Eventually, the National Childcare Agency issues an ultimatum – surrender Sophie to them, or face punishment. So, naturally, Charles and Sophie decide to skip the country. From a clue accidentally discovered, they decide to go to Paris as – they hope – Sophie’s mother may be there. Charles, like most other adults, believes that Sophie’s mother went down with the ‘Queen Mary’, and that Sophie couldn’t possibly remember her, but, as he has taught Sophie throughout her life, ‘never ignore a possible.’ So, he resolves to overcome his own doubt and help Sophie in her search.
They approach the Parisian authorities and get nowhere, but they do manage – through tracing the cello which they know Sophie’s mother owned – to find out her name. Using this information, they attempt to have her traced as a missing person, but they run up against legal and jurisdictional issues all over the place. Eventually, for fear of being sent back to England, Charles asks Sophie to stay in their hotel room, hidden, while he carries on the search – but she meets a young boy called Matteo, who is a Rooftopper, or a homeless child who lives ‘in the sky.’
And thus, Sophie’s career as a rooftopper begins.
Now, there was so much about this book that I loved. I can’t say enough about how much I adored Sophie and Charles’ relationship, which was – very clearly – a parent/child relationship, but also one between equals, wherein Sophie’s intelligence, agency and independence were respected. I adored Katherine Rundell’s use of language, which shines with beautiful, polished, exquisitely realised turns of phrase. I loved the use of music, both that played on the cello and that sung by human voices, and I really enjoyed the world she creates on the rooftops of Paris.
But. But. There were things that spoiled the novel for me, too.
Firstly, there’s so little logic in Sophie’s search. She works out, for instance, where the records for the ‘Queen Mary’ are probably being held, but – instead of going straight there, with Matteo’s help – she spends ages learning the life of a rooftopper, eating pigeon and walking on tightropes and so on. In some ways this is amazing; in others, it’s annoying. Sophie is incredibly intelligent, so the fact that it doesn’t occur to her to search for the ship’s records for so long is irritating. Then, there’s the fact that the end happens so suddenly, after such a long and lyrical build-up, and it’s so incredibly unrealistic. Now, I know the whole book is rather like a dream or a fairytale, filled with whimsy and delicate beauty, and I accept all that, but the first half (perhaps even three-quarters) of the book is so beautifully paced (despite Sophie’s slowness in putting the pieces of her puzzle together) that the end feels like a slap across the face.
I just – I really didn’t like the end. Some people think it fits with the fast pace of the novel overall, and feel that it fits with the musical theme of the plot, but I was left frustrated by it.
But, the book is filled with life lessons like ‘Never underestimate children,’ and ‘Do not underestimate girls,’ and ‘Books crowbar the world open for you,’ and ‘there are people who would come out in a rash at the sight of a broken rule.’ It is filled – stuffed – with some of the most gorgeous language I’ve ever read, including some of the most startlingly original metaphors I’ve ever seen, which I delighted in. I loved all the characters, though I really thought some of them were underdeveloped. I’d have read a book about Matteo and his friends, alone – which is, of course, a good thing.
In short, it’s a definite recommendation, but I’ll warn you now that you’ll fall in love with Charles Maxim. It’s impossible not to. In fact, you’ll fall a little in love with all the characters in this book, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Katherine Rundell is a great talent. ‘Rooftoppers’ is not a perfect book, but it’s not far off.