Egg & Spoon

De­fy­ing Grav­ity, or top­pling over?

SFX - - Penny dreadful - Re­lease Date: 6 Novem­ber 475 pages | £ 14.99 Au­thor: Gre­gory Maguire Pub­lisher: Walker Books

Gre­gory Maguire’s book pulls on myth and Rus­sian folk­lore to tell a com­pelling and fan­tas­tic tale.

US au­thor Gre­gory

Maguire has made a name for him­self with his retellings of clas­sic chil­dren’s sto­ries and fairy­tales. His most fa­mous work is Wicked, a ver­sion of The Wizard Of Oz told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch Of The West, which was made into a wildly popular Broad­way mu­si­cal. Egg & Spoon sees Maguire this time turn his at­ten­tion to Rus­sian folk­lore, but the re­sults are mixed, in part be­cause the novel can never seem to quite de­cide which au­di­ence it’s aimed at.

It’s the eve of the Rus­sian revo­lu­tion. Re­peated poor har­vests – caused by a cy­cle of weather that could be con­sid­ered in­hos­pitable even by Rus­sian stan­dards – have left an al­ready desperately poor pop­u­la­tion fac­ing the spec­tre of star­va­tion. In a tiny back­wa­ter ham­let, a girl named Elena nurses her ail­ing mother and ekes out an ex­is­tence on scav­enged nuts and berries. Her fa­ther is dead, and at the start of the novel her elder brothers are both press- ganged into ser­vice far away: one in the army, one in a landowner’s house­hold.

Then a train en route for St Peters­burg, car­ry­ing a unique gift for the Tsar and a po­ten­tial bride for his god­son in the shape of a girl named Cat, is stranded on the edge of the vil­lage by a dam­aged bridge. Elena’s hori­zons broaden rapidly, not least be­cause when the train fi­nally departs, an un­likely mix- up leaves her on the train in Cat’s place. Soon both girls are hav­ing en­coun­ters with myth­i­cal be­ings – Elena stum­bles upon the Fire­bird, Cat falls in with the witch Baba Yaga – and the fate of the land lies in their in­ex­pe­ri­enced hands.

The set- up has a fairy­tale qual­ity to it: Elena’s sit­u­a­tion has echoes of Cin­derella skivvy­ing for her step­sis­ters, just a fairy god­mother and a glass slip­per – or, in this case, a train and a magic egg – away from swap­ping a draughty cot­tage for a lav­ish palace.

But her plight ( and that of her com­mu­nity) is so sharply and painstak­ingly drawn that it’s rather

A di­chotomy be­tween grit and glee runs through the en­tire novel

ele­phant tap- danc­ing on the roof of a car. Jokes in un­trans­lated French rub shoul­ders with gags which carve deep grooves into the ground with their rep­e­ti­tion; Baba Yaga’s love of all things anachro­nis­tic and Amer­i­can is ini­tially fun – she has Chee­rios in her cup­board and Cats on her turntable – but wears thin.

The over­all ef­fect can some­times re­sem­ble whiplash: crip­pling poverty! Wise­crack­ing cat! Ter­ri­ble op­pres­sion! Ice dragon! Maguire’s at­tempt to cre­ate fam­ily fun of­ten comes un­stuck. In­di­vid­ual el­e­ments work, some­times very well – the char­ac­ters are well- rounded, the de­scrip­tions colour­ful, the di­a­logue lively, and the is­sues thought­ful – but, set along­side each other, they tend to clash more of­ten than they com­pli­ment. Even if they’re not al­ways suc­cess­ful, though, th­ese jux­ta­po­si­tions make the book spikier and more in­ter­est­ing than it first ap­pears. Nic Clarke

at odds with the cheer­ful tone of the narration and the free­wheel­ing slap­stick of the plot that de­vel­ops. This di­chotomy be­tween grit and glee is the thread that runs through the heart of the novel.

On the one hand, Egg & Spoon is a book that’s keen to cel­e­brate a child’s way of see­ing the world. Much is made of the fact that only chil­dren are able to spot Baba Yaga’s house run­ning around on its chicken legs, its story largely re­volves around the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of two girls just en­ter­ing their teens, and the so­lu­tion to most prob­lems in­volves be­ing true to your friends and be­liev­ing in magic.

On the other hand, it also ( un­der­stand­ably, given the set­ting) wants to show us cer­tain things kids don’t gen­er­ally no­tice, like sys­temic abuses of power and the ways in which Cat’s class priv­i­lege is an ob­sta­cle to a real friend­ship with Elena. At which point Maguire re­mem­bers he’s also writ­ing for chil­dren and switches back to the first hand, spell­ing out his moral mes­sages with all the sub­tlety of an

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