Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Late Review: A Game of Dark by William Mayne

A Game of Dark
by William Mayne
(Hamish Hamilton, London: 1971)

I have been reading quite a lot of what used to be called children's books, more usually labelled 'young adult fiction' these days. Some of it has been modern and some 'vintage'. William Mayne has been a significant discovery in the vintage category. It has been claimed that he was one of the greatest writers of children's books in the twentieth century and, equally fairly probably, he has a reputation as one of those children's writers as much, if not more read by adults than children. Certainly, I had never read any of his books as a child despite being of the right vintage myself. Nonetheless, I have read a number now and, given that I have chosen this book among them, you might be right in assuming this is going to be more of a recommendation than a review!

The title is not misleading, this is a dark tale. In the first scene Donald Jackson, our boy-protagonist, is 'coming to' in his classroom from a fugue-like state. He has little memory of where he has been or what he has seen but as the book progresses these switches back and forth between his here-and-now reality and "another place" become more and more vivid until it is difficult for Donald to tell which 'reality' he prefers. We see him go to a fantasy world more and more often as problems in his home life get worse. His father is physically and emotionally crippled, his mother is hard pressed to find enough compassion for her husband to have any to spare for Donald. As the book unfolds we learn more about a family tragedy that connects all these things and we see a father who is using his religion as an excuse to punish himself for undeserved gilt.

The device of having a child character live half in the real world and half in fantasy is by no means unique to this book but I have never seen it done so brilliantly. The fantasy world in which Donald finds himself is indeed one which has many of the tropes of the fantasy genre: knights, beasts, dark-ages style towns and culture. But Mayne's is full of stench and cowardice, ignobility and fear. There is also no direct analogue, there is no talking down to the child reader saying: his fantasy is this because it corresponds to that in the real world. Instead the two worlds are separate and unrelated in many ways and they really only share one thing, a choice that has to be made. The easy thing to do is to make the two worlds relate, to show how the character is running from an unhappy situation in the here-and-now into a place where he has control or where he can find respite from his worries. Mayne is so much cleverer than that.

Where Mayne truly excels though, and this is a paean I could sing of all his novels I have read so far, is in his observation. I have rarely read a book, let alone a supposed children's book, where the characters have felt so real and so full of their own life and history. Not just Donald, who is brilliantly portrayed with all the qualities of adolescence from the adorable to the disgusting, but also the adults in the book, his parents and the somewhat overly chipper Vicar in the here-and-now, and the pragmatic knight in the other place, every character is beautifully observed, sparingly recreated and in the end sympathetically shown to us with a great love, no matter how awful they might at first appear.

Mayne wrote over a hundred books, of the four or five I have now read this was the darkest and the best and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. But I am looking forward to diving into some of the remaining 95+


Anonymous said...

Fascinating - I dimly remember reading this as a child, and I am going to search for it right now. What other William Mayne would you recommend Callum?


Callum said...

Hi Aymery,

Thanks for taking the time to say hi. I have only read a few so far but I he is known for the Choir School Series of four novels, the first of which, 'A Swarm in May' I have read and can heartily recommend. I have heard it referred to as a masterpiece of children's literature and it is certainly a masterpiece of observing children. Quite autobiographical as he attended Canterbury Choir School himself.



Aymery said...

Thanks Callum - I'll look for this one!

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