Lynne Markham made a strong impression with her first book, The Closing March (1997). Set against a background of pit closures, it is a story with a powerful sense of place and the impact of individual and collective memories. Facing up to the death of his much-loved grandfather, present day Mick finds himself drawn into the miner’s world that his grandfather experienced as a boy not much older than himself. Mick uses drawing as his medium of expressing the claustrophobia and terror of being down the mines. Through his art he can empathise with his grandfather and the lives of the two blend together when Mick takes up playing his grandfather’s cornet and representing him in the colliery band when they leave the pit for the last time. Partly identifying with the old way of life and partly desperate to set out on his own path as an art student, Mick’s understanding, not only of own grandfather’s past but of the community’s past, is convincing as a portrait of how the history of a country as well as that of an individual family has changed. And Mick is not just a catalyst for understanding the passing of time. He is also a plausibly confused and angry adolescent struggling to forge good relationships with the adults – and especially the adult men – around him.
Markham uses the device of narratives from different times in subsequent novels, too. In Finding Billy, it is a domestic secret from the past which is unravelled as one generation discovers the secret that another has kept hidden. Here Markham shows great sensitivity in her understanding of how a family coped with a child with a disability at a time when there was little support and no understanding. Like The Closing March, Finding Billy has a strong sense of place – this time it’s the countryside – and a clear sense of how families carry their past with them.
In both of these early novels, Markham writes with passion but also cautiously. By pinning her stories closely to reality she gives the impression that she knows exactly where her characters are coming from and why they follow a particular trajectory. This makes for a robustness and credibility that is a strength but also keeps them tethered and lacking in excitement.
Published within a short space of time, her next three novels show a significant change. Still keeping to the idea of how the past plays a part in the present and retaining the twin narrative, but with only one as ‘real’ and the other as imaginary, Markham moves into fantasy and uses it as a metaphor. For younger readers than either The Closing March or Finding Billy, Lionheart is another story about a boy and his grandfather but here the link is a statue of a lion. Leo is small and easily bullied until, with the help of his grandfather and the statue of the lion, he unlocks the inner lion within himself and finds the courage that links him with his past and enables him to stand up to the bullies in the present. For the same age group, Winter Wolf covers similar ground, except that Josh needs strength to cope with his unsustaining and cool relationship with his father while his mum is away ill. Out of the snowy landscape comes a magical white wolf and the two roam the nights together allowing Josh to draw in courage and intelligence which enable him to rework his situation.
Markham is good at the difficulties that boys may have in their relationships with their fathers, observing it as a failure of communication rather than one of animosity. It is taken to its most physical extreme in Deep Trouble. Jimmy’s father is trapped, speechless and tearful, after a stroke that has shut him off from the rest of his family. On the same day that he has his stroke, a whale is trapped in the river, unable to get back to the sea. Jimmy’s twin anxieties are about how the whale will escape and swim free and how his father will ever recover. Markham offsets the family tragedy well through the telling of the story of the whale’s escape and Jimmy’s identification with it. Vividly told, so that they solidly conjure up people, places and situations, Markham’s books are also sensitive about families and their relationships and especially about boys and the scope they have to express their feelings honestly.
Surprisingly, after this run of titles which are so carefully wrought in both their content and the telling of it, Markham has taken a quite different turn for her most recent book.
Another younger title, Barney’s Head Case, like all of Markham’s others, certainly has a message – that the inner person is more important than the outer – and it picks up on earlier themes, especially father/son relationships. But this is a book that lacks Markham’s characteristic depth and the twists and turns of her storytelling. Instead, it has an unleavened predictability which even the mild joke at the end fails to redeem. Markham needs more space than this to develop the intricacies of relationships and a convincing domestic background which have been her strengths.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s books editor of The Guardian
(published by Egmont Books)
The Closing March, 1997, 0 7497 2876 0, £4.99
Finding Billy, 1998, 0 7497 3094 3, £4.50
Lionheart, ill. Chris Chapman, 1998, 0 7497 3405 1, £3.99
Deep Trouble, 2000, 0 7497 4131 7, £4.99
Winter Wolf, ill. Chris Chapman, 2000, 0 7497 3327 6, £3.99
Barney’s Head Case, ill. Chris Priestley, 2001, 0 7497 4700 5, £3.99