A bittersweet reunion with the Pembertons and the inimitable Psammead
Carnegie Medal shortlist 2016 – Review 6 of 8
After Edith Nesbit’s first three books featuring the Pemberton children, Kate Saunders has penned a final volume featuring the siblings – now six, not five as the title suggests – and of course the inimitable sand fairy, the Psammead.
I loved Five Children and It when I was younger, so it was with interest and not a little curiosity that I wondered what a follow-on could involve. How would it build on the original story? Actually, wasn’t the original a bit harmless? All that wishing to be beautiful as the day is long and for wings and so on. In fact, Saunders manages to combine the original’s innocent magic with a tragic depth while maintaining a lightness of tone that blends the two themes seamlessly.
It is nine years after we last saw the Pemberton children: it is October, 1914, and the first world war is looming. The original five are now six: the Lamb – who can now speak properly and say more than “Baa” – has been supplanted as the baby by Edie, and the family are living again at the White House in Kent. One day, the Psammead appears in the gravel pit where he was originally discovered, much to Edie’s delight and the amazement of the other children. Unfortunately this time he is not well – his magic is fading and he is unable to grant wishes unless by accident.
Without re-reading the original stories (confession: I haven’t read The Phoenix and the Carpet or The Story of the Amulet. But I will!) and comparing line-for-line whether Saunders’s world is in line with Nesbit’s, I was impressed at how genuine the story felt and how naturally it flowed. The language Saunders adds to the impression of a real early-twentieth century atmosphere – spot on, as it were. Nicknames like Bobs for Robert and expressions like ‘homers’ (homework) are charming examples of the good nature and innocence of the Pemberton children. They are perennially cheerful, full of the energy of childhood, and though tears are spilled (at least one dangerously close to the Psammead) they are dried almost as quickly with characteristic stoic Britishness.
Perhaps it’s just the absence of smartphones combined with my Neo-Luddism, but for me there is something to savour in the simplicity of the Pemberton’s existence. The children – some of them young adults now – are busy and active, but not preoccupied with very much at all and live rather idyllic existences without the weight of the twentieth century and the horrors of things like widespread terrorism and climate change crushing them. I suppose I’m envious, and that’s part the reason I enjoyed escaping to their world again.
The advent of the first world war does change things, though, and here the naivety of the young adults Cyril, Robert, Anthea, and Jane, and the children Hilary (the Lamb) and Edie, and indeed in the adults themselves, is heartbreaking. The prologue attests to this, set in 1905, as the Psammead transports the the four older children to the Professor’s house in 1930. Their visit is short and the children are delighted to see the future but afterwards the Professor cries, because he knows what happens in between the children’s present and his.
Saunders develops the story through references to the ongoing war – food shortages, friends losing relatives to the battlefront, Anthea’s volunteering as a nurse – as well as letters from Cyril on the front, and eventually, the more fragile Robert. There are also visits to the Professor (in everyone’s present) who, enchanted with the Psammead, is inspired to write a book on the history of the desert god himself. The hints at the Psammead’s past and former position as a brutal tyrant provide the basis of the second strand of the book, the Psammead’s facing up to his past.
The last sand fairy himself is carefully recreated, and depth is added to his character and his history. His lack of control over his powers is linked to his past actions and refusal to face up what he did as a desert god, ruling ruthlessly thousands of years ago over an empire of slaves; he is as proud and thorny as I remember, and frustratingly unrepentant. This builds throughout the book to the moment of climax, the coming-together of the two story strands, the moment in which the Psammead realises what he has to do and why he has been trapped in Kent as the war progresses.
What I liked about the Psammead’s journey is that rather than engaging on a mission of repentance with the help of the Pemberton children to identify precisely what he did wrong and what he has to do to regain his powers, the Psammead repents organically, learning about himself as the story develops. As the reader unpicks the Psammead’s role and the parallels between his ancient sins, his need for repentance, and the unfolding war’s impact on the Pemberton children, the fantastic falls gently into place alongside the events of the real world. Developments in the story mirror tales from the Psammead’s past, but not so exactly that it’s howlingly obvious symbolically. The conclusion itself is not climactic but aptly respectful of the moment when all the Pemberton children and the Psammead are together for the last time.
Five Children on the Western Front stands as a reminder that everyone deserves humanity, whether a slave living under a cruel desert god or a young man sent off to fight in the trenches. But having now read six of eight on the Carnegie shortlist for 2016, I think I’m gunning more for the quirky teenage kicks on offer from Patrick Ness’s The Rest Of Us Just Live Here or the raw heartbreaking emotion of Sarah Crossan’s One.