King of the kids comes into his own

So­phie Mas­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

PAUL Jen­nings, a gen­uine su­per­star of Aus­tralian chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, has had a long and dis­tin­guished ca­reer, start­ing with the pub­li­ca­tion of his first book, Unreal! Eight Sur­pris­ing Sto­ries , in 1985.

Born out of the frus­tra­tion Bri­tish-born Jen­nings and his son felt at the dearth of ex­cit­ing read­ing ma­te­rial for those who weren’t good read­ers, it was an im­me­di­ate hit and was fol­lowed by sev­eral best-sell­ing col­lec­tions of ‘‘ Un’’ sto­ries, such as Un­canny , Un­be­liev­able , Un­bear­able and so on, as well as pic­ture books and short il­lus­trated books for younger read­ers, such as Sin­gen­poo and the Cab­bage Patch Fib .

With their trade­mark twists, sub­ver­sive hu­mour, light touch with un­der­ly­ing me­lan­choly, sharp char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion, ri­otous, clever plots, touch of the su­per­nat­u­ral and ease of read­ing, the books gave Jen­nings a huge fol­low­ing in Aus­tralia, and the tele­vi­sion se­ries based on the sto­ries, Round the Twist , was a global hit.

In the 1980s and ’ 90s his fame in this coun­try was on the level of Roald Dahl, the reign­ing king of chil­dren’s fic­tion in those pre-J. K. Rowl­ing days. He con­tin­ued to build on that fame with the Gizmo se­ries, a cou­ple of se­ries writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with an­other Bri­tish-born Aus­tralian su­per­star, Mor­ris Gleitz­man, and sev­eral pic­ture books.

Jen­nings’s ap­peal has al­ways been di­rectly to chil­dren. As is of­ten the case with gen­uinely pop­u­lar writ­ers, for a long time his artistry went un­recog­nised by the gate­keep­ers of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture in Aus­tralia, who some­times give the im­pres­sion that sim­plic­ity and clar­ity are neg­a­tives rather than pos­i­tives. His work even­tu­ally started ap­pear­ing on short lists for the Chil­dren’s Book of the Year Awards, but I do not think that, to date, a Jen­nings book has won.

How Hed­ley Hop­kins Did a Dare . . . — the full ti­tle would take up sev­eral lines of this re­view — pub­lished in 2005, was not only Jen­nings’s first foray into full-length nov­els but also his most per­sonal book. Based on his life, it is writ­ten in the voice of young Hed­ley Hop­kins who, with his par­ents and sis­ter, has mi­grated from Bri­tain to Aus­tralia in the 1950s and is find­ing it hard to fit in.

Jen­nings has said ‘‘ the boy in the story is al­ways me’’, and that is es­pe­cially clear with Hed­ley. It is also, I think, ap­par­ent in his lat­est novel, The Nest , even though the action of the novel is set in the present. But The Nest is aimed at older read­ers: more com­plex in struc­ture, it is also more dar­ing and am­bi­tious in scope.

Robin is 16, a lonely boy liv­ing with his coarse and tyran­ni­cal fa­ther in the Vic­to­rian snow coun­try. His mother left without ex­pla­na­tion years ago and Robin misses her deeply. He has a big crush on the lo­cal ranger’s daugh­ter, the lovely, rather self-righ­teous Char­lie, but she mis­in­ter­prets him, and he finds him­self lured into the sexy web of the lo­cal fille fa­tale , Verushka, who he sus­pects, rightly, is us­ing him for her own ends.

Robin has a se­cret and it’s not that he is caught be­tween two girls, or that he loves writ­ing sto­ries, or that he swings be­tween loathing and help­less pity for his fa­ther, or that he longs for his mother to come back. It is that ter­ri­ble ideas and sce­nar­ios keep pop­ping into his mind — cham­pagne corks, he calls them — in which he sees him­self do­ing un­speak­ably hor­ri­ble things to peo­ple. Poor Robin fears he is in­sane or dis­gust­ing or both, and it is this teenage tor­ment that Jen­nings por­trays so well and with such emo­tion that it feels very per­sonal.

The sense of dread build­ing up is com­pelling. Much of it is cen­tred on Robin’s cham­pagne corks and in the ex­traor­di­nary short sto­ries he writes, which are re­pro­duced in the book, but also on a grad­u­ally mount­ing sense that there is some­thing deeply wrong, even sin­is­ter, in the fam­ily’s past. Robin senses it but can’t un­der­stand it, and it is epit­o­mised in the im­age of the swal­lows’ nest that grad­u­ally forms a mys­te­ri­ous link­ing thread be­tween past and present, though we don’t know pre­cisely what it means un­til the grip­ping, snow-bound cli­max.

This is a pow­er­ful, dis­turb­ing but ul­ti­mately hope­ful novel. The ten­der yet un­spar­ing depth of char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion in the novel is matched by the limpid beauty of the writ­ing, the sen­sual evo­ca­tion of the snow­fields set­ting and the com­pelling na­ture of the story. Ad­mir­ers will be pleased to know that the Jen­nings ca­pac­ity to spring sur­prises and wit are there, too. Per­haps The Nest is the work that will fi­nally bring home to our lit­er­ary ar­biters just how fine, in­tel­li­gent and sub­tle a writer Jen­nings is. So­phie Mas­son’s new novel, The Mad­man of Venice, will be pub­lished in June.

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