November 14, 2004

The Shadow Guests, by Joan Aiken

Despite not having read all that much of her work, I have a fondness for Joan Aiken. It goes back to reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (one of my sister's books, I do believe), and then discovering some of her grown-up fiction later on; I particular like her short stories "Dead Language Master" and "Sonata for Harp and Bicycle". Every so often I stumble across another of her books, and buy it, and sometimes I like it. Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds in Nantucket are in some sense sequels to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; I read them many, many years ago now, and at the time didn't think they quite measured up to their predecessor. (I shall have to read all three of them again and see what I think now.) On the other hand, I rather enjoyed The Cockatrice Boys. So when I saw a couple of juveniles by Aiken that I hadn't seen before, I bought them, with an eye toward perhaps reading them aloud to David.

With regard to this one, at least, I think perhaps I won't. But before I explain that, let me say a few words about the story.

Young Cosmo Curtoys (pronounced "Curtis") has just returned to England from Australia, where he had been living with his family in the desert until his mother and brother mysteriously disappeared. He'll be living in the old Curtoys family home with his father's cousin Eunice Doom, an Oxford professor. On the weekends, that is; during the week, he'll be attending a boarding school in Oxford. Cosmo takes to life on the old homestead with relish, but the situation at school is not so rosy. And then there are the ghosts, and the old family curse....

The Shadow Guests is essentially a rite-of-passage novel, with ghosts. Cosmo must learn to deal with his mother's death, and must learn to fit in at his school; he must also deal with the family curse, but that plot thread is given no more prominence than his progress at school.

I actually enjoyed the story well enough. So why don't I want to read it to David? There are two reasons, really. One has to do with the school story, and the other has to do with Cousin Eunice.

When Cosmo shows up at the school, he's shy, and feels out of place, and naturally keeps pretty much to himself. He's also the New Boy, coming to the school in the middle of the term. And the other kids put him through hell. He's fairly stoic about it, though he hates it, and though he doesn't complain several older people remark to him that it happens to all of the new kids, he has to show the right spirit by putting up with it, and eventually he'll be accepted and it will stop.

Now, this might be very good advice in the context of an English boarding school circa 1980; but I find the casual acceptance of cruelty by the older folks rather appalling. (I will say that the hazing is mild compared to other school stories I've read.) Anyway, I'd rather my boys learned to stand up for themselves a little more than Curtis does.

But the more important reason is Cousin Eunice and the absurd nonsense she spouts. Eunice plays a role in this book similar to that of Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; she's the benevolent grown-up who listens to the kid's wild tales with an open mind. Kirke gives creedence to Lucy's stories of Narnia because of Occam's Razor--Lucy is either mad, or lying, or telling the truth, and as she's clearly not mad, and as she's known to be trustworthy he assumes that she must be telling the truth. It's simple logic, based on common sense. I could cope with Cousin Eunice if she dealt with the story of the family curse in just the same way. She starts there, indeed, but then goes on about the plausibility of telepathy, ghosts, and a variety of other phenomena using bad mathematical metaphors that prove nothing and sound remarkably silly if you know what she's talking about but which might sound convincing if you don't.

I want my kids to appreciate good fantasy, but at the same time I want them to always be clear on the difference between fantasy and real life, and Cousin Eunice muddles the two a little too much for my taste.

All that said, this isn't a bad book; it's not a great book, either, but it's not bad. I'll be keeping it, and if David wants to read it to himself in a few years, that will be OK.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 14, 2004 08:19 PM