The Crystal Prison | Chapter 7

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Beware the maker of dolls. Repent ye or the vengeance of the Green shall smite ye down.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now our heroes arrive in Fennywolde proper and begin to settle in, but it’s a bumpy ride. First of all there’s the unprecedented acceptance of Madame Akkikuyu by the country mice, and Audrey’s well-intentioned but ultimately ridiculous performance over the healing potion. I love the way that scene is written; the mice’s derision and Audrey’s mortification are so pronounced I could feel myself cringe in sympathy. That said, their behaviour toward her seems crushingly unfair. After all, she was only trying to protect Young Whortle and Sammy, and had no way of knowing that Akkikuyu would make a usable tonic. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m on Audrey’s side there.

Out comes the bucolic description again when we come to the Hall of Corn, probably one of my favourite settings in any of Mr Jarvis’ books. One can positively hear the soft rustle of the ears and feel the heat of the midsummer sun, and I absolutely adore the varied and fascinating cast of fieldmice we are introduced to.

For a brief scene or two, we can almost allow ourselves to believe that Fennywolde is indeed what it appears – a haven of peace and serenity peopled with sturdy, friendly country folk. Of course, that is not the case at all, as we see during the scene with Audrey’s corn dolly. That alarming sequence perfectly illustrates the clash of country superstition and puritanical doctrine which will become one of this book’s major themes. With Akkikuyu as our tolerated ‘wise woman’, Audrey as our suspect newcomer, Alison as our smug village darling, and Isaac Nettle as our sermonising witch-hunter, our story moves into its Arthur-Miller-esque second act.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I promise not to go into the subject of harsh religious figures again, except to say that Isaac Nettle is in spectacular form in this chapter.

What I will say is, it’s fascinating how Alison Sedge is turning into the anti-Audrey of the piece. While it would be easy to just write her off as being the ‘mean girl’, you get the feeling that under different circumstances, Alison and Audrey might have been much more similar. They’re both self-confident, attractive to the boy mice – and smart. But Audrey lost her father and almost got killed by a giant fire-breathing cat. Whereas Alison got told she was beautiful and let it go to her head.

It’s also why I feel sorry for Audrey in this chapter looking at the fuss everyone makes about Madame Akkikuyu. While there is a part of her that probably wants to see Akkikuyu make a recovery, it would be very hard not to remember that it was this rat that dragged her in front of Jupiter’s dark portal in the first place. I speak from experience when I say that standing up against wrong is hard. But far more difficult than that is forgiveness for people who don’t understand what you went through.

It would also be wrong of me not to mention (especially for the newbies) that you might want to go back and have a read of the bat chapter in The Dark Portal, because you might remember that it had something to say about Audrey making dolls … Gasp … is this some clever Jarvis foreshadowing starting to pay off in the second book?

Finally, how great is the Hall of Corn? Again, it just has that sense of openness and space that we don’t get in the London locations. As a setting, I love it and find it relaxing to read about.

So it’s almost a pity that we’re halfway through the book – which for those of you familiar with Mr Jarvis will know – means that the book is about to pummel us relentlessly for the remainder. Buckle up, people. This is going to be intense.

The Crystal Prison | Chapter 6

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

A terror was hunting in the night.

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Oh, Alison Sedge. Queen of the barley, nymph of summer, mousey sun-goddess of our hearts! When I was younger I don’t think I quite appreciated the glory that is Alison, but now I find her adorable and, frankly, hilarious. There she lounges on that rock like some sort of siren of the meadow, counting off the faults of her rivals with venomous glee and rehearsing her ‘seductive country wench’ routine. But this is the Deptford Mice Trilogy, and as with all Robin’s characters, there is more to our Miss Sedge than first impressions would have us believe.

There’s a lot to delight the eye and imagination in this chapter. The soft, watercolourish descriptions of the English countryside in high summer. The antics of young Whortle Nep and his friend Sammy. The imposing threat of Mahooot the owl (love that name!) and the final triumph of Madame Akkikuyu, resulting in her acceptance into a community we were all certain would shun her the moment they saw her.

There are less pleasant aspects, however. After the levity of Alison by the still pool, things take a dive with the introduction of Jenkin and his terrifying father, Isaac Nettle. As a child, Mr Nettle frightened me silly. He still does, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.

I think the scariest thing about this character is that there is nothing supernatural about him. Jupiter was scary because of the god-like powers of evil he wielded; Morgan was scary because he served Jupiter. Whom does Mr Nettle serve? The wise, compassionate, ever-thriving Green Mouse. Yet he treats that vocation as a chore and a burden – something to be endured through gruelling prayer and the decrying of those who he believes fall short in their displays of piety. He is abusive and tiny-minded and, unhappily, the kind of mean, petty individual you find in real life. He is someone who hurts because he himself is hurting, but rather than excusing his actions that fact only brings his cruelty into sharper focus. We know from the outset that he is going to cause trouble for our heroes, and we wait with trepidation and mounting dread to see what sort.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I think I’ve finally put my finger on what I like about the Fennywolde location: it’s expansive, it’s sunny and it’s outdoors. (Compared with the locales in The Dark Portal which were predominantly damp and narrow sewers or small houses, and set during an English springtime – aka an Australian winter.) And mostly indoors. So visually – and you really do have to visualise Mr Jarvis’ work on a big screen – Fennywolde is the complete opposite to that.

And yet, no one is getting a chance to enjoy that space because of Mahooot …

My favourite bits about this chapter:

  • It contains a fictional character with my last name (that would be Hodge) – always awesome.
  • Watching Madame Akkikuyu move from villainess to heroine – and more importantly – her gaining a sense of belonging.

What is also of interest is the character of Isaac Nettle, Jenkins’ father. Growing up religious, I always found myself rolling my eyes at characters like these, because there seemed to be an awful lot of them in the 70s, 80s and 90s in movies and books. But now that I’m a bit older and understand more about the history of the 20th century, I think I’m realising more about where these religious extremist characters come from.

Nowadays, we usually think of an extremist in really strong terms – someone who carries out acts of terrorism and such. But, from what I can tell of Western history, if you went back to the 1950s, there was a harsh streak that seemed to run through much of Christianity (which was the dominant religion on the landscape back then). It was probably well meant – a way of showing the fervency of your faith and of keeping the next generation in line.

But instead, this harshness created a cultural split we’re still feeling echoes of decades later. As the 60s took shape, a huge number of people jumped ship from the culture of their parents – they had different music, different ethics, different religious beliefs, different clothes, different politics. Different everything. By the time that generation grew up and had children, we started to see echoes of some of their parents’ religious harshness in fictional characters. Just read Stephen King’s Carrie and see the portrayal of Carrie’s fanatical mother and you see this harshness transformed into something terrifying.

So I see that in the character of Isaac Nettle. Robin portrays him with compassion – it is not the faith that makes Nettle so brutal, but the fact that he has twisted it into something harsh and tyrannical as a way of bringing order to his world, of dealing with the grief over his wife’s death. But he has become a violent abuser of his son in the process.

And this, remember, is in a children’s book. About mice. It’s tough going, but it makes for a gripping story. See you next chapter.

The Crystal Prison | Chapter 5

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

From somewhere in her dreams a voice seemed to be calling to her: ‘Akkikuyu! Akkikuyu – are you there?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Just as with last chapter, there’s a lot going on here below the surface. Let’s start with the atmosphere. It is summer; the moon is round, the weather is warm, Oswald is better. On the face of it, things are hunky-dory for our heroes.

Except that they are not.

Audrey is not coping with the dual heartbreaks of leaving her mother and her life-long home so soon after her father’s death. What’s more, she has ruined things with Piccadilly, and the prospect of having to spend the rest of her days looking after a senile old rat in a country backwater she’s never seen with people she’s never met is finally beginning to hit her in all its misery.

Meanwhile, Madame Akkikuyu has a new suffering to add to her list in the form of a sinister, disembodied voice which plagues her sleep. For anyone who has ever dealt with mental illness and/or intrusive thoughts, Akkikuyu’s fear and despondency hit painfully close to home.

During the scene where everyone says their goodbyes, we also get another glimpse into Thomas’ secret and buried torments. Twit’s unknowing, well-meaning correction of Thomas’ misuse of his name should make the midshipmouse’s momentary lapse seem inconsequential; instead it looms large, drawing our attention, causing us to wonder what sort of anchor Thomas could be carrying that a journey upon the water is impossible for him, even with friends waiting at the end of it.

Things fester in the summer night, appearing just long enough to trouble, vanishing before they can be brought out into the open. Despite that they look to fair Fennywolde with hope, one cannot help but feel that our heroes will find no solace among the swaying stalks of that golden idyll.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I had forgotten most of this chapter as well! Again, it possibly holds off the action for a little bit, but I’m enjoying the chance to enjoy some peace with these characters, because it never lasts long! This chapter also has some important mythology for Jarvis fans well. It’s the first time we hear the name Woodget in connection with Thomas Triton’s past, which is a thing we’ll definitely come back to.

But what I like best is the atmosphere. The good-natured Kempe, the Thames at night in summer, Akkikuyu enjoying the stars. Most of all, I’m drawn to Audrey’s compassion. Modern hero stories often try to give their heroes bravery, strength or smarts, but compassion is something much more rare and I appreciate the way Jarvis uses it.

Final question: is Kempe Irish? I always think of him as being Irish, but that could be my imagination.

The Crystal Prison | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

He bowed his head and wept silently beneath the crescent summer moon.

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  There’s quite a bit going on in the layer under this chapter’s main events. We’ve got Arthur and Gwen’s mutually healing relationship (I surmise that in the Brown family, Arthur is closer to his mother, while Audrey spent more time with Albert). Then there’s Piccadilly’s first uncomfortable stay in the Skirtings and his feelings of being unable to fit in no matter how friendly the Browns and Twit are. We’ve also got the beginnings of Gwen’s tempestuous duel-of-wits with Thomas, the bond of the Chitter family and insights into Oswald’s parents, Twit’s strained bravery in the face of his cousin’s decline, and finally, Audrey and Piccadilly and their …thing.

I admit I never really boarded the Audrey and Piccadilly Train when I was younger. Nowadays, I’m so on board that train I’ve got a seat in the front carriage, but while I love both these characters individually and agree that their relationship is a wonderfully-written drama, I’ve always sort of had the idea that they’re not really that compatible. Or at least, that they met at completely the wrong time and in the wrong circumstances.

Their trouble is that they both have really strong personalities – neither is willing to give any ground whatsoever to the other, so instead of communicating, they stew in silence, bottling up things which really need to be spoken aloud. There’s also Audrey’s unaddressed grief and Piccadilly’s deep-rooted existential angst to complicate matters. By the time this chapter draws to a close,  we share Audrey’s frustration and Piccadilly’s regret, and the joy of Oswald’s recovery is mingled with sorrow for a friendship that seems unsalvageable.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter is a little bit of a mouse soap opera: someone is sick and gets miraculously better, a boy and girl have a fight instead of telling each other how they feel. Mr Jarvis actually packs in a whole bunch of moods and feelings in one chapter, which I’m in awe of. I’m still not entirely sure how he does it!

But we have the heartbreak of Oswald dying, the humorous aspects of the altercation between Master Oldnose and Thomas Triton, the joy when Oswald recovers and the inevitable moment where a budding romance runs into an obstacle – in this case, Audrey and Piccadilly being unable to say what they really feel.

The only possible problem that you might be having – if this is the first time that you’ve read the book – is that it’s not entirely clear who the antagonist is in this book, and what kind of peril our heroes might be in. So far, it just sounds like Audrey, Arthur and Twit (and not Piccadilly) are facing an unpleasantly long holiday in the countryside with a mad rat. But have no fear, readers – The Crystal Prison is going to ramp up quite nicely in the second half. So savour the sounds of the whisker fiddle and bark drum and enjoy your berrybrew – things are going to heat up.

The Crystal Prison | Chapter 3

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

From the depths of the dark glass he saw the night sky – only the stars shone a hundred times brighter.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Owing to the piecemeal stocking practices of my local library, The Crystal Prison was the first of Mr Jarvis’ books which I had the pleasure of reading in unabridged, fully illustrated (and slightly grubby) paperback form. I can remember being about nine, lying in a state of fuzzled poorliness on our old blue sofa one wet weekday, whizzing through chapter after chapter at a rate of noughts. I was amazed and startled by the illustrations, and by the idea that the world of the Deptford Mice was much deeper, grander, and more frightening than it had seemed in the abridged audiobook of The Dark Portal.

This chapter makes a great impression upon me now as then. First of all, my heart aches for poor beleaguered Madame Akkikuyu. The little aside that she often lies awake at night in tears as her memory continuously betrays her actually made me shed a tiny tear on rereading, and, as with Oswald’s illness, the portrayal of her traumatised state is distressingly realistic. Despite that she delivered Audrey to Jupiter rather than defying Morgan in The Dark Portal’s finale, we cannot help but sympathise with her dream of ‘sleeping in summer light’, and hope against hope that things work out well for her.

The final scene in the Starwife’s chamber is so amazingly cinematic I could almost see it play out before me shot-by-shot like a film. Something I love about it is that it echoes Twit’s journey through the stars in Chapter 7 of The Dark Portal, hinting again that he is in some way marked for a destiny taller and more dangerous than his mousebrass would suggest. Further more, we finally discover the depths of the Starwife’s manipulation, but, as with Madame Akkikuyu, she is not all she seems.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Totally enjoying reading this again after so long. There’s a richness to the little touches. First off, there’s an expansion on the idea from the final chapter of The Dark Portal, where Madame Akkikuyu wants to flee away and Audrey shows her compassion. And, interestingly enough, that comes back again in the person of the Starwife. Audrey is horrified at the idea of going away with Akkikuyu and says to the Starwife, why is she so important? She’s just a rat. ‘And does that make a difference child?’ the Starwife replies. The Starwife is harsh, but she has more compassion than some of the mice.

It’s this cruel but kind approach of the Starwife that really signals one of the interesting things about this second book: we move from simple black and white to shades of grey. After so many 100% evil villains in the first book, The Crystal Prison mixes things up: Akkikuyu, in her state of insanity, yearns for good. The Starwife seeks to do good but with a cold, cruel approach. And when the book shifts location (as a result of the brilliant plot device of Audrey’s bargain), we’ll be introduced to a whole crew of new characters, all with their own shades of morality as well.

The Crystal Prison | Chapter 2

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘You must think me a rude old battleaxe,’ she said calmly.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now the Starwife gets her moment in the limelight. One of Mr Jarvis’ most iconic characters, this grizzled old beldam is another fantastically stop-motionish specimen. I love the description of her chamber in the Great Oak, with its hanging baubles and ancient tapestry, and of course, who could forget the Oaken Throne itself!

I’m going to nerd in a different direction here and suggest this track by Howard Shore for the scenes with the Starwife in this chapter and the next. Meant for Tolkien’s woodland elves, it evokes both the cunning and strength of the primordial forest, and something that is also a little cold and otherworldly.

The Starwife; ancient, all-seeing, with one eye fixed upon the heavens and one paw rooted to the earth, rather suits the comparison. Mr Jarvis has admitted to a fondness for Tolkien’s legendarium in the past (to the point that he once made models of the characters!) and if any of you are also Tolkien fans, you’ll enjoy spotting the influence of that esteemed master of high fantasy in Robin’s work  as this project progresses.

In this chapter we also get to see Audrey display some of her signature fire. I love her clash of wills with the Starwife, and I commend our heroine for standing up for herself even in the midst of her grief over Oswald.

While rereading, it also occurred to me that there is perhaps a little bit of class commentary going on in this chapter and Chapter 3, especially with regards to the way the Greenwich Park squirrels treat the mice and the way the Starwife behaves toward Thomas and Twit. Mr Jarvis himself lived in Deptford for some time before moving to Greenwich, so he is perfectly placed to offer insights of that kind. This is yet another example of how his work is so firmly rooted in place; this may be a fantasy about mice, but it is imbued with so strong and specific a culture that it simply would not be the same were it set anywhere else.

 

 

Matt’s Thoughts: The Starwife! This is the kind of character that you see being voiced by Maggie Smith or Judi Dench. Acid-tongued, arthritic, with little patience for cowardly squirrels or being contradicted. (I’m not sure why, but I also find it hilariously funny having a squirrel called Piers.)

This might also be a good time for another one of my photos from the Greenwich trip last year. Sadly, it looks like I didn’t take a photo of the Observatory itself, but you can check out their website if you’ve never seen it. But this is my photo taken from the Observatory looking down, so as I was reading this chapter, I was realising that it must be a massive hill when you’re only a mouse! It’s steep enough climbing it as a human!

greenwich

There are a whole bunch of interesting things foreshadowed in this chapter: the darkness with twinkling lights behind the Starwife’s throne, the throne itself, Thomas Triton’s past, his attachment to Twit, all of which are elaborated on further, either in this trilogy or in the Deptford Histories. But, of course, this is all by the by – the most important thing is that Madame Akkikuyu is back on the scene … On to chapter 3!

The Crystal Prison | Prologue & Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Illness has a smell all of its own and it is unmistakable. Sweet and cloying, it lingers in a sickroom, waiting for the patient to recover or fail.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Of the three wonderful prologues in this trilogy, I think this is my favourite. One of Mr Jarvis’ signature narrative motifs is the idea of monumental struggles with the forces of evil happening alongside the everyday doings of ordinary people; out of sight and out of mind, but affecting us all.

In the dismal scene on the bank of the Thames, we see this in action. The terror of Jupiter, even of his corpse, means nothing to the anonymous builder who finds him. In death, the fearsome Lord of All is rendered powerless – revolting, perhaps, but awe-inspiring no longer. Just how narrowly the world escaped his evil is spelled out to us in no uncertain terms.

It’s incredibly atmospheric for such a short scene. The vistas of Deptford Mr Jarvis paints for us seem grim and drab even on a sunny summer morning, and I love the little aside that ‘nature took a hand’ in ejecting Jupiter’s body from the river. It’s never stated, but I like to infer that that was the work of the Green.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I haven’t read The Crystal Prison for quite a few years – possibly not since I was a teenager – and so I didn’t remember quite how poignant this chapter was. It’s also a lot more personally resonant to me now.

There were a lot of people lamenting at the end of last year that so many celebrities passed away in 2016. But there were other people that never made it out of 2016 either – one of them was my father. We first learned of the heart condition that was to eventually kill him back in 2014, when he had several heart attacks over a period of about a month. The second lot of these put him in intensive care, with a less than 10% chance of survival.

While he miraculously survived and lived for another two years, I’ll never forget the experience of him being in hospital that time. The dreadful waiting by his bedside, wondering whether the particular breath he was taking – exaggerated by the sound of the life support machine – was going to be the last one. Sleeping on chairs in the emergency waiting room in case he took a turn for the worse in the middle of the night. It was a draining week.

Reading this chapter, so much of that is brought to the surface. The quietness of everyone, just waiting around for the inevitable. The lack of sleep, the haggard lines under eyes. It was all there and it felt painful to me. Which makes me wonder, is this just a resonance to me and my experience? Or was it also a resonance for Mr Jarvis when he wrote it? If you look at The Dark Portal, you’ll see that the book is dedicated ‘For my parents’. But in the beginning of The Crystal Prison, it says: ‘For the rest of my family, who now live without the light of my father’. I wouldn’t know for sure, but perhaps this chapter was personal for Robin as well.

Either way, it sets up a tremendous tragic backdrop for the mysterious meeting with the Starwife which is about to take place.

Oh yeah, and in the midst of all that, in a few skillful paragraphs, Jarvis sets up a believable romance between Audrey and Piccadilly as well. The man doesn’t waste words!