The Land of Neverendings, Kate Saunders’ latest book, contains many of the elements that imbue her children’s fiction: the sparky, joyous japery which characterised her novel Beswitched, in which a modern girl found herself in a 1930s boarding school; and the deep sense of loss that pervaded her Costa-winning Five Children on the Western Front, a beautifully written follow up to E Nesbit’s Five Children and It sequence.
In The Land of Neverendings, the heroine Emily’s disabled sister has recently died, and remarkable things start happening when it appears her toys come to life, and are seeping through into our world from their own imaginary realm of Smockeroon. It’s a very funny book, and also powerful and honest in its examination of grief.
I meet Saunders in her North London house: a Victorian terrace near Archway tube. In the kitchen her deaf cat is sitting on a chair; its occasional mews make it appear as if it’s adding to the conversation. Which is entirely appropriate, of course, given the subject matter of Saunders’ book. Over the afternoon I spend with her, our conversation ranges widely, from the importance of mirrors to Lewis Carroll, to German royalty, to the Glorious Revolution, and to the protocols of grief; and Saunders is always witty, wise, and kind, with a finely tuned intelligence that cuts through absurdities and pretensions.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland looms large: the characters at Emily’s school put on a play version. I ask about fantasy: is it in some way a search for truth? ‘You’re not wrong though,’ she answers. ‘People go to a fantasy world for comfort, for escapism. And I think children are very well aware of what’s a real story and what isn’t a story … There’s an enormous fantasy input into our imaginative lives, because it explains the world, or tries to. And it’s fun. Romantic and fun, and you have adventures.’
There’s also an oblique reference to C S Lewis, in the form of a science fiction writer called Staples (Lewis’s middle name.) Saunders is a huge fan – even to the extent of reading his book on ‘16th century verse – brackets, not drama,’ she jokes. I ask if Saunders read the Narnia books as a child? ‘Loved them. Particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because of this wonderfully potent image, the wardrobe. Like I loved Alice through the Looking Glass, because of the bit where she climbs through the mirror. Who hasn’t looked then at the room in the mirror and thought – it’s just like our room, but it’s not, and it’s the wrong way round? Childhood in itself is a state of powerlessness, often with flashes of danger that you can’t do anything about … And so naturally children love stories about other children when there is an escape which no one can interfere with – it’s a wardrobe. I love them. I’ve been looking in wardrobes for years now.’ Her favourite character was Mrs Beaver: ‘something of an inspiration to me because she was so calm in the face of danger.’
She loved Lewis’s authorial voice: ‘the idea that I’m here to entertain you. I’m not here to give you a lesson. In my books you might meet sad things, but that’s a story. And again story is such a good prism. Why do stories exist? To explain, as much as anything else, I think, the inexplicable.’ In characteristic manner she flashes me a wry look: ‘Oh I don’t know – getting a bit deep.’
Lewis and his brother buried their toys in the garden when their house was sold: ‘They were anxious to put away childish things, I suppose, but it was just weird because they weren’t really putting them away, were they? What if you have to bury your toys in the garden so that other children won’t play with them? I thought that was quite spooky. I also thought how spooky it would be if you moved to their house and then you dug in the garden if the drains were changed or something, and you found a box of withered Edwardian toys, how weird that would be, so that was part of the inspiration for my book.’
The chaotic, manic, very silly toys in The Land of Neverendings slip through into our dimension from a land called Smockeroon. Saunders tells how the idea stemmed first from Bearland, which was what she called the place her toys went to as a child; and then from the stories she told to her son, nephews and nieces.
She was amazed by the way that the children would react; in particular, to a singer character she made up called Nancy Minceover; her niece would invent songs for her, and ‘completely walked away with the character and made it something, which I thought was brilliant. … Yes, we had toys going to an imaginary place. I’m sure lots of people do this. When you can’t see them, when you’re at school … and the answer is that they’re having a gay old time, and you tell stories about them.’
There is a great sadness at the heart of Saunder’s book, which is also touched on Five Children on the Western Front, and that is the death of her only son, Felix, at the age of 19. The new book confronts that grief directly: ‘I cried writing it, and in the end, I hadn’t been brave enough in the first draft and my editor pointed out the bits that weren’t working and I realised, without my having to say very much, she was right about the bits that weren’t working because I’d stopped being completely truthful.’
She continues: ‘Children don’t get enough chance to express something that we, grown-ups, don’t like talking about; and we don’t like talking about death, and we don’t like talking about the death of children. So it does make you a freak if your child’s died, and it makes people scared of you, because they have no experience.’
The writer Julian Barnes, with whom Saunders has a long-standing friendship, passed on something he was given when [his wife] Pat died: ‘that nature is exact in the matter. It hurts exactly as much as it’s worth, and if it wasn’t worth anything then it wouldn’t hurt, and that was helpful because it dignifies what you’re going through. Yes, this is important, it’s worth everything, I’m grieving for my son, and it’s worth everything in the whole f**king world, that’s how important it is, and that – it’s not a comfort because there isn’t one, but it gives you a dignity.’
That is why, she adds, the Victorian mourning system worked, because it meant people knew how to react. ‘I’m wearing black for a year and a day because my heart is broken and that’s obvious. But mind you, if you were going out to a country house you had to take your mourning with you just in case somebody died. Somehow you had to know if it was full mourning or half. And you had to appear at breakfast in your correct mourning – it was awful. That was your luggage. Like a newsreader.’
‘Death is weird and frightening, but there’s nothing you can do about it,’ she finishes. And with that glint in her eye, she adds: ‘Imagine if I put that on the cover – it would be so lovely.’
Philip Womack is an author and critic. His books include The Double Axe and the Darkening Path trilogy. He is crowdfunding his new novel The Arrow of Apollo, with Unbound.
The Land of Neverendings is published by Faber Children’s Books, 978-0-5713-1084-5, £10.99 hbk.