The Fate in the Box
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This issue’s cover illustration is from The Fabulous Foskett Family Circus, by John Yeoman and Quentin Blake. Thanks to Quentin Blake for this special 200th cover and to Andersen Press.
Prolific doesn’t even come near it. Michelle Lovric has produced more than a hundred anthologies and gift books, selling over a million copies. There are adult novels, travel books, journalism, reviews. As you read this, her fourth book for young readers, all of them set in Venice, you collide with a restless mind, teeming with fantastical ideas, intoxicated by language and all things Venetian.
This time, we are in the city of 1783. Well, sort of. La Serenissima has fallen under the boot of the brutal Fogfinger and his Fog Squad thugs. The lives of the indolent rich are eased by countless automata who pour their coffee, clean their shoes, walk them outdoors where tin footmen transport them in sedan chairs, or wind-up gondoliers crew their craft. Every Sunday, mechanical monkey priests deliver identical sermons to the wretched poor, forced to listen to Fogfinger’s latest decrees from the pulpit.
The novel opens with a terrifying scene in which a young seamstress, Amneris, climbs the ramp inside the bell-tower of the Frari to meet her fate. Is she to be sacrificed to appease the Primeval Crocodile in the annual Lambing Ceremony, another of Fogfinger’s instruments of oppression? At the top of tower, a wind-up box will open to reveal either a Madonna’s head or a skull. Life or death.
Before we can know the outcome, the novel whirls into flashback, ushering in a huge cast of characters and a kaleidoscope of a plot – kaleidoscopes are indeed central to the story which is charged with brilliant, shifting patterns and surprises. With Amneris, we meet her friend Biri, a Venetian version of a cockney kid, and Tockle, the likeable son of a water-seller. Then there are the vain stone statues who send Chinese whispering messages up and down the Grand Canal, vegetarian sea monsters, flying cats, a wicked merchant, a sea-captain incarcerated in the Doge’s Palace for 19 years, talking mermaids, and more and more automata maintained by the wretched Winder-Uppers. The more fortunate of the starving underclass of Venice still ply the traditional trades - glass blowing or sewing fine silk, perhaps. The poor are not without spirit – there is an underground Resistance, with a special children’s wing. There is also a mysterious girl, starved of love but stuffed with sugary cakes by her wicked lawyer father, intent on selling her off to the lustful Fogfinger who likes a plump young girl every now and again (Ms Lovric is far from squeamish about such pc sensitivities.)
The author’s enthusiasm for Venice cannot resist digressions into social history and tradition along with a plethora of Italian words and place names – perhaps she would argue they lend authenticity. Sometimes you feel Lovric has written herself into a corner she can escape only by the instant invention of a new bit of magic. Pouf! A squadron of intelligent magic moths – that should do the trick! To an adult eye, some of this might seem a little hastily, even frenetically, contrived. The speech given to the chief Mermaid, for example, capitalises all the nouns. Eh? But that would not be evident when spoken, surely, short of strange and too frequent emphases. The denoument may seem protracted, even anti-climactic – so many ends to tie up. But young readers will probably be very happy riding the pell-mell plot with the bad guys getting their nasty desserts and the good guys ending up happy and triumphant. The uniqueness of Lovric’s voice and its limitless, attractive energy will not be denied.