Cornelia Funke is not, for me, an ‘auto-buy’ author, despite the fact that she is a writer I deeply admire. There’s something slightly standoffish in her style, I think: something which gets between me and the words, like a film. I don’t know if this is something other readers experience with Funke, or if it’s just something which troubles me alone, but it sometimes stops me enjoying her writing as much as I should.
‘Ghost Knight’ is one of Funke’s more recent books – my lovely hardcover edition, a gift from my husband, dates from 2012 – and it is packed with charm. It features beautiful black and white illustrations, like these:
and there are ghosts, details from medieval history, architecture, tombs, effigies, spooky old cathedrals, graveyards, grandmothers who use their crutches as weapons, love and sacrifice, treasured friendship and adventure… but, I feel, it fell foul of the old ‘Funke film’ thing again. It was a wonderful story, but told at a distance. I didn’t feel emotionally involved with anyone or anything in it, and that was a shame.
Having said this, I really enjoyed the story, and I loved the character of Ella Littlejohn – I was not at all surprised to learn that Funke drew this character straight from life, as she leaps off the page – and I enjoyed reading about William Longespee, the titular ‘ghost knight’, about whom I knew nothing before opening this book. The story opens at a pivotal moment in the life of Jon Whitcroft, who is sent away to a boarding school in Salisbury after a breakdown in his relationship with his mother. Angry and feeling rejected, he resolves to hate his new life, and his bruised feelings are very much in evidence as he makes the train journey, alone, to a place in which he knows nobody. Very soon after arriving, though, Jon has a strange and disturbing vision – three gruesome ghosts, all on horseback, who clatter into the courtyard beneath his window at night, making it very clear he is their prey…
One of the only people who believes his crazy story about bloodthirsty ghosts is Ella Littlejohn, a fellow pupil at Jon’s school. She is used to the weirder side of life, as her grandmother Zelda is a witch who lives in a house full of toads. Ella gives Jon the idea to go into Salisbury Cathedral and beg for help at the tomb of William Longespee, whose ghost – it’s rumoured – appears to aid the innocent when they are in grave danger. Legend has it that Longespee has something dark on his soul which needs to be expunged, and by continuing to do good deeds even after his death, he may be able to repay his debts and find peace.
Figuring he has nothing to lose, Jon follows Ella’s advice.
Longespee is indeed raised, and he agrees to come to Jon’s aid. But why are ghosts hunting Jon in the first place? And what is the truth behind the horrible accusations being made by yet another ghost, that of a young chorister who fell to his death from a window a century before? Can it be true that there is more to Longespee’s damnation than he is willing to admit?
For a gut-wrenching moment during this story, I began to wonder if the children would have any role in the action at all. We see them being saved through the actions of adults, several times, and I did worry that they’d be excluded from a central place in the drama. However, the ultimate resolution hangs on Jon, and his courage, and that was enough to keep me satisfied. One of the stranger aspects of the narration – and, perhaps, the cause of the ‘Funke film’ that keeps me separated from the heart of the story so often in her work, this book included – is the fact that Jon narrates this story at several years’ remove from the events described in it. He makes several wistful, ‘in the old long ago’ type remarks when he introduces us to a new person, or a new thing, and it did throw me out of the narrative world a little. I can’t see any reason for choosing to narrate the story this way: it would have worked better if it hadn’t been done like this, I think, because it removes a bit of the tension. Despite this, the world is beautifully evoked and delicately described, and the ghosts – particularly the ones hunting Jon – are properly scary.
Jon is supposed to be eleven years old during this book, but at times I really felt as though the narrative voice belonged more properly to an older teenager. This, of course, may be as a result of the fact that it is the adult Jon who narrates the book, which again makes me wonder why Ms. Funke chose to write it this way. His voice sounds old and world-weary at times (which makes sense, somewhat, when you get to the end of the book, but which is simply confusing at the start), and there are also hints of romance, which I usually feel are unnecessary in a children’s book – certainly one aimed at the 8+ market, as this one is. One thing I must say about ‘Ghost Knight,’ however, is this: the subplots, and the little details, and the stories-that-aren’t-quite-told, such as the tale surrounding the ghost of the mason’s apprentice, are absolutely fascinating. I yearned to know more about the bit-characters in this book, and that has to be a mark of good, solid writing. Despite its strange framing, and slightly ill-fitting narrative voice, then, I would recommend ‘Ghost Knight,’ and I would be fascinated to know what a younger reader would make of it.
I think I should go and dust off my old copy of ‘Inkheart’ and give it another go, too… perhaps I can have a ‘Funke-delic’ weekend.
May you find time to read this weekend, and may the words you choose reward your effort.