Regular readers, you’ll know what to expect…
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!