Tag Archives: tradition

Continuing Tradition – Review of ‘A Face Like Glass’ by Frances Hardinge

Regular readers, you’ll know what to expect…

Image: franceshardinge.com

Image: franceshardinge.com

Yup. It’s a book review. This week, it’s the turn of ‘A Face Like Glass’, by Frances Hardinge.

I have to admit, right at the start, that I’m a huge Frances Hardinge fan. She’s an amazing writer, who knows how to use words and who’s not afraid to make them work hard, a writer who doesn’t shy away from language just because she chooses to write for younger readers. Coming to her work was, for me, a revelation. It showed me just how good and how exciting children’s books could be.

‘A Face Like Glass’ is an excellent book, in keeping with its shelfmates ‘Fly By Night’, ‘Twilight Robbery’ and ‘Gullstruck Island’ (I have yet to acquire ‘Verdigris Deep’, but I will do, just as soon as funds allow!) It’s a book filled with such leaps of imagination that reading it can leave you feeling breathless and incredulous, wondering how on earth one brain could possibly hold so much wonder. It tells the story of a vast (and notoriously unmappable) underground city named Caverna, which houses a collection of eclectic and unusual inhabitants. As well as Cheesemaster Grandible, with whom our heroine Neverfell makes her home after she mysteriously turns up in one of his vats, we meet the powerful Childersin family, who are hiding an immense secret, and Madame Appeline, the famous Facesmith.

A Facesmith? What on earth is that? Well… it’s hard to explain.

Caverna needs Facesmiths because it is a world in which people are born without the ability to form facial expressions. This doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings – they are just rendered unable to show them to others. Everyone in this world is taught, from a young age, the basic expressions, but of course there are those for whom this limited repertoire is insufficient. Facesmiths, then, design expressions, and bring out ‘ranges’, like fashion collections, of trademarked (and viciously guarded) Faces. They employ Putty Girls, young women with particularly pliable facial muscles, in order to display their wares to potential clients. People ‘of quality’, with plenty of money, can afford to buy several hundred Faces, whereas those of lower classes are taught the bare minimum of expressions as children – ones which will serve their station in life, expressing their acquiescence and their eagerness to obey orders.

If all this sounds rather strange, then think of this: how can you tell if a person is lying or telling the truth, if their face is a static mask which betrays no emotion? How can you gauge how another is feeling, if their expression doesn’t give it away? How – as Hardinge explores at the end of the book – can people feel part of a shared community if everyone wears the same neutral expression, if nobody can look at their neighbour with sympathy, understanding, love, or even compassion? If your feelings are constantly locked up inside you, with no way to be expressed? She takes the idea of Faces and makes it so important, so vital to understanding what it means to be a human being, that I was left staggered by her worldbuilding.

Caverna is underground, and the people who live there have a profound fear of Outside. They live in terror of the sun, which burns off people’s skin and leaves them blind (so they have been told), but Neverfell – the deliciously, lovably eccentric protagonist of this tale – has memories, or flashes, of things she can’t explain, things like the wind, and the feeling of being beneath nothing but the sky, and birdsong. Nobody can explain how she ended up falling into Cheesemaster Grandible’s life, but he takes her in and makes her his apprentice, and pretty soon she’s as accomplished a cheesemaker as anyone could be. She has to turn her back on this quiet, but safe, life, however, when she gets herself mixed up with Madame Appeline. This intriguing figure has made her name as a Facesmith with her Tragedy Range, a collection of Faces so heartrending that every lady of quality has to own it; Neverfell feels an inexplicable connection to this grand lady which she must uncover. In the process of trying to do this, she manages to inveigle herself in the affairs of the Childersin family, who are favourites at the court of the Grand Steward, the notoriously unstable leader of this underground world.

The most amazing thing about Neverfell, though, is this: she has a face which isn’t constrained by Caverna’s strange lack of expression. She has, as the title says, a face like glass – a face so clear and honest that you can look straight through it to her heart, and her emotions are displayed for all to see. Grandible has kept her masked all her life, until she’s about thirteen or so, and because of this Neverfell believes herself to be grotesquely ugly. The real reason, of course, is that Grandible can’t bear to look upon her because her face is natural and free, and not constrained by any of the official Faces. Neverfell cannot lie, and that’s something the people of Caverna can’t understand – and it makes her both dangerous and desirable. At court, she is completely natural, too, which means she blunders her way through proceedings, offending all around her, and creating ructions in the delicate structures of etiquette and protocol, to which she’s oblivious. She puts the Childersins in danger, and has to escape in order to save her own life.

But, in an underground city, how far can you run?

This book is, like all of Hardinge’s novels, big and meaty and wordy and complicated, and so full of imagery and description and language that I wish I could have read it as a teenager. It would have given me an even deeper love for words than that which I already have. It tackles a complicated Court structure – imagine pre-Revolutionary France, but even more unhinged – as well as social class, the oppression of the poor, the absurd privilege and entitlement accorded to those who can afford it, notions of humanity and identity and freedom, questions about mental health and delusion, how treating people like objects leads to terror. It introduces us to the most endearing and unique heroine I’ve ever come across in children’s fiction, a young girl who has courage, intelligence and self-belief, and who – once she discovers what is wrong with the heart of her world – has the conviction to do something about it. It’s deftly plotted, expertly written, and handled so well that the reader never feels lost, or confused, or has to wonder what’s going on. This is a story which sucks you in and spits you out when it’s done with you; you’ll be a changed person, but you’ll be glad of it.

In short, it’s marvellous.

It’s a children’s book, but at nearly 500 pages, it’s a story for everyone masquerading as a children’s book. I hope you try it. I challenge you not to be astounded.

Happy weekend – may you read widely and well!

Human Nature

Happy April Fool’s Day. I’m not sure I altogether like this ‘holiday’, having been on the receiving end of one too many pranks as a younger person (in case I haven’t revealed this already, I’m extremely gullible), but if you’re celebrating – and not making a fool out of somebody else – then have a ball.

You could just do like this fella and gambol around in a funny costume for a while.Image: 123rf.com

You could just do like this fella and gambol around in a funny costume for a while.
Image: 123rf.com

It’s a Bank Holiday weekend here, craftily arranged by my husband and I in order to help us celebrate our anniversary (of course). It has nothing to do with the fact that most of the country is languishing in a chocolate-fuelled stupor this morning… We had a wonderful day yesterday for Easter Sunday; we spent it with two of our best friends and their young baby, where we all went on an Easter Egg Hunt. It was, of course, more fun for the adults than the child, and sadly, the adults ate all the chocolate, too. (In our defence, the baby isn’t able to eat solids yet. Honest!)

I’m not sure if it was our time with our friends that sparked today’s blog-thoughts off in my mind, or the TV programmes we watched when we got home (both dramas involving past eras), or some twisty combination of both, but in any case – today I’m thinking about human nature, and how people don’t really change over time.

What's this? Just a blog, medieval-style.Image: abdn.ac.uk

What’s this? Just a blog, medieval-style.
Image: abdn.ac.uk

We spent our day celebrating an ancient feast with our friends, a feast which most people would connect with Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus. But – as most people are aware – the feast of ‘Easter’ (named, even, after the goddess Eostre) is a lot older than the Christian faith. It has more to do with the time of year and the fecundity of the season, the return to earth of the flowers and creatures and crops that are necessary to sustain life, than it does with the much younger faith of Christianity. I am a Christian, but I am also a trained medievalist, so the feast of Easter has two layers of meaning for me. Our celebrations yesterday got me thinking about how people carry out rituals – the giving of chocolate, the symbolism of rabbits and ‘Easter bunnies’, the tradition of ‘April Fools’ – without really thinking about what they mean and where they come from, or even knowing how old the traditions are. It got me thinking about how people are the same from generation to generation. The things we do sometimes change, as do the circumstances in which we have to live our lives. But people – the essence of what makes us human beings – stays the same.

When I worked as a tutor, I was responsible for teaching my students about medieval language, literature and culture in Britain (mostly), but also in Ireland and Europe. I often started a class by asking the students to read a section of Chaucer, for instance, or an extract from Beowulf or one of the Old English elegies. Perhaps, if I was feeling particularly playful, I would give them a piece of poetry like this one (don’t worry, a translation follows!):

Mec feonda sum   feore besnythede
Woruldstrenga binom   waette sithan
dyfthe on waetra   dyde eft thonan,
sette on sunan,   thaer ic swithe beleas
herum tham the ic haefde.

(An enemy stole my life, and took away all my worldly strength; they wet me, dipping me in water, then took me out once more. I was left in the sun then, where I swiftly lost all the hair I had.)

My students would labour intensely over an extract of poetry like that, trying to work it out, looking at it like it had huge significance, doing their best to be intelligent. So, when I told them ‘it’s a joke’, they sometimes weren’t too impressed with me. The poem is an extract from Riddle 26 in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English joke-verses. Some of them are crude, some of them scandalous, some of them groan-worthy, and some of them are still mystifying. This one, the narrative voice of which goes on to tell us that a knife cut away all its impurities, and that it was folded and pierced through with holes and bedecked with brown dye before being guarded between boards, decorated with gold and trusted with the Word of God, is telling us that it’s a book – more specifically, a Bible. You have to know, of course, that in the Middle Ages books were made of animal hide, which would be soaked to soften and loosen the hair, dried in the sun, and scraped with a blade to make it perfectly smooth… and once you know the answer, the whole riddle begins to click into place.

Each of the riddles presents the reader (or listener) with confusing images designed to make something everyday seem completely alien – all in the name of a big punchline, giving everyone who’s been sweating to work it out an ‘Aha!’ moment, where they can slap their thighs, laugh with one another and pretend that they’d unravelled it long before their neighbour had. So, in a way, my students’ efforts to understand the words mirror exactly the reaction that the original authors would have wanted. My students would (hopefully) learn from this that even though the sense of humour had changed a bit, the need or desire to laugh, to exercise the brain, to get one over on your fellows, to play a trick, were as much a part of the Anglo-Saxon world as they are to our own.

Human art, from any era, depicts a number of big themes; Love is one. Death another. Nearly everything else can be constructed out of some combination of these. Regret, Betrayal, Loss, Passion, Devotion, Adventure (which can be seen as the pursuit of one and the simultaneous avoidance of the other.) We no longer joust, and our sons no longer get sent to fight with the King, but plenty of young men and women still get sent to fight our modern wars. We no longer scare ourselves with stories of giants and headless horsemen; instead we use zombies and vampires (when we’re not falling in love with them, of course.) We love our children and our families, we want to protect our homes, we want the dignity of earning our own living, we want the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. None of these things are new to us. All of these things were known to our forebears too, all the way back to our earliest beginnings.

The past can sometimes seem very far away, and people who lived in previous eras can often feel like creatures of another world. But they’re not, at all. We are lucky to have the conveniences we do, which make the things our ancestors wanted – safety for our young, security for our crops, warmth for our homes, good health as long as we can get it – so much easier. So, it makes me glad that we still celebrate some of the old feast days, even if we don’t know why any more. It’s a precious connection to those who’ve gone before us, and a vital expression of human nature.

Anyway, on that note: Happy Easter!

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org