King of the kids comes into his own
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.