I freely admit that the main reason I picked up this book was because it had a snowy landscape on the cover. Anyone who’s been around here for longer than five minutes knows that, while I’m not terribly fond of snow in reality, I love reading about it. I’m fascinated by the Polar regions and those distant icy fastnesses of the world where anything – and anyone – can happen.
The second reason I picked it up is this: it’s published by Oxford University Press. Nine times out of ten, the children’s books published by OUP are worth checking out. This one was definitely worth the effort.
Philip Gross’ 2003 novel was a gripping affair from start to its Apocalypse Now-tinged ending, easily holding my attention and keeping me guessing – and that’s no easy feat. It tells the stories of Paris, a privileged fourteen-year-old American girl on a trip to the Himalayas with her distinctly strange uncle, and Tahr, a twelve-year-old boy who has been taken on by an elderly Buddhist monk, Shengo, as his apprentice. This pair of vastly different children end up realising exactly how similar they are, and how far they’ll go to protect something dear to them both – and how badly the odds are stacked against them, from all corners. It’s a book which, while having distinctly ‘otherworldly’ tones, is also firmly grounded in the real – Paris comes from a home which hasn’t been broken so much as smashed, and Tahr’s early life is a blur of painful memories involving burning, and pain, and being separated from his mother. Paris’ uncle, Franklin, is a man with more money than conscience, and his motives for coming to the Himalayas are far from noble. As well as that, the region is being torn apart by a brutal civil war, into which the children find themselves being thrust as they struggle to escape from the enemies who wish to destroy them, and that which they wish to protect.
Even though this book is, by most accounts, an ‘oldie’, it was certainly new to me. I was also unfamiliar with the author. I don’t want to give away too much about this precious thing the children want to save, though, for fear of spoiling a surprise for other readers – though, one look at the book’s cover, as I’ve shown it above, gives a multitude of clues.
Here’s an alternative cover, which is almost as intriguing.
The book is well paced, particularly as it draws to its conclusion; there are brutal scenes near the end, ones which bring home the reality of war and the truth of what it’s like to be at the mercy of people with no scruples, but they don’ t feel forced, or overdone. I loved the closing scenes of the book, and it’s one of those stories where I feel, had I been the author, I wouldn’t have changed a word. I enjoyed Philip Gross’ writing style, particularly in the scenes he writes about Paris on her own – these seem sparky and true to life, and her dialogue is great. He deals well with Tahr and his relationship with Shengo, and shows the delicacy of his growing friendship with Paris which transcends the profound differences in their backgrounds and experiences. An early scene, where Tahr loses someone he loves and blames himself for it, is moving and memorable, and perfectly pitched. Paris’ relationship with Franklin reminded me a little of Sym’s with her uncle Victor in ‘The White Darkness’, another OUP children’s book which I also really enjoyed; Franklin, despite his brains and money and skill, seems a little one-note and flat, mainly because there’s not a lot to him besides his psychopathy. Perhaps, indeed, this is the point.
‘The Lastling’ is a book about family, and love, and – in particular – children’s relationships with their mothers, and how important these relationships are. The contrasts between the various mothers in the text, and their connections to their children, are stark, and we see the differing levels of commitment, sacrifice and love offered by each mother to her child. There can scarcely be a more emotive thing for a children’s book to take as its central motif, and the way it’s used in this book is masterful. It draws a character which might seem otherwise completely impossible to relate to so close to the reader as to be almost uncomfortable, and in the process makes us realise a few dark truths about humanity, and our role in the destruction of the world around us. It’s not a new theme, by any means – mankind as the great destroyer – but I’ve never seen it handled quite like this book handles it.
In short, this is one of those rare books which will appeal equally to boys and girls, and should also be extremely readable for adults – it has war and guts in spades, but at its heart it’s a book about connection and emotion. It’s a book about humanity, and what makes humanity special and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom (hint: not a lot), and which should make anyone who reads it think for a while about the arrogance of our species and what, exactly, we’re basing that arrogance upon.
In short – recommended. Read it, but be prepared to be angry.