‘When Geraldine is on form she can knock the socks off all the rest of us.’ Thus a very distinguished children’s author talking to me about this brilliant and prolific author. I have quoted this remark before in Books for Keeps when writing about Geraldine seven years ago. But it remains just as true today. Geraldine McCaughrean is indeed an extraordinary writer. It maddens me when well-read friends have still never got round to her, leading me to suspect that sometimes it is uncertainty about how to pronounce her name (‘Muh-cork-run’) that has led to her not being as well-known as she deserves.
Geraldine was born in 1951, which means she will be seventy this June, although meeting her you would think she was much younger. She has written up to 170 books, plays and retellings of myth and fairy stories, including that most unread and difficult of all British classic texts, Spenser’s Faerie Queen. The daughter of a fireman father and school teacher mother, shy and self-effacing, she showed no particular talent at school nor when training to be a teacher. But then the writing started, and if anyone ever doubts that great authors are born not made, Geraldine is a case in point. From nowhere a new, hugely ambitious writer suddenly appeared, as it appeared almost effortlessly able to travel in time to whatever historical era interested her and in space to whichever part of the world she wanted to write about. Never over-burdening herself with research, sometimes discarding her notes altogether when they risked getting in the way of her imagination, she also created characters so utterly convincing it was as if to know them in real life.
She remains a traditional children’s author in the sense that she has no time for ultimately depressive fiction aimed at the young. As she told me herself, ‘I would never write a story that ended without a sense of hope.’ But because readers sense that this is always going to be the case, this also enables Geraldine to explore extreme darkness before her characters end up safely. Her heroes and heroines are not perfect and usually have much to learn as their story progresses. But her villains, and the time and circumstances in which they operate, can be very black indeed.
To take one example, her 1996 novel Plundering Paradise was often described at the time as ‘swashbuckling’: that tired term so regularly in use when it comes to any tale involving pirates. But it is in fact a desperately tense adventure story, at times bearing comparison with Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica. Her pirates are horrible inadequates, happy to trade a thirteen-year-old girl to the highest bidder. Her three youthful heroes are caught between believing they should follow the traditional Christian orthodoxies they have learned in Britain while also having to come to terms and seeing the value of the new belief systems they now experience in Madagascar. The Bible is much invoked, but what it has to say is never the end of the matter. Elsewhere, obtuse colonialist attitudes are revealed for what they are.
There is no spare in Geraldine’s writing. Every word counts, because it is never quite certain what the next one is going to be. Dazzling new metaphors are coined and familiar ones twisted into new meanings and resonances. The supernatural might suddenly start playing a part. There may be a dive into unfamiliar period detail. The unexpected often happens, throwing everything into doubt and confusion. The only certainty is that there will never be any certainty, except perhaps for the final positive resolution.
Her latest novel The Supreme Lie, published this April, is a story of political treachery, where corrupt leaders systematically deceive their followers while enriching themselves. Set in an imaginary country not so different from Myanmar and what is happening there at the moment, this is powerful stuff. But Geraldine is a writer supremely gifted in bringing to life actual geographical and historical settings and the multi-various ways that their human inhabitants once used to pass their times. Opting for fantasy-land, however topical in its references, does not, at least for me, bring out the same power of dazzling realism found in her depictions of Australia in The Middle of Nowhere, ancient Japan in The Kite Runner, or the American West in Stop the Train. In the same way, setting a novel in an uncertain period in time deprives readers of the excitement and wonder created by her expert re-imagining of what once might have really happened. Her descriptions of the British Middle Ages in A Little Lower than the Angels, her first novel, are as convincingly realistic as it is possible to be.
Other favourites come to mind. The twelve stories for the price of one in A Pack of Lies, the Carnegie Medal winning novel that proved that there is quite literally no end to the powers of Geraldine’s imagination. Not the End of the World offers a brilliantly dark re-examination of the story of Noah’s Flood, with God finally shown as having a lot to answer for. Every adult reader I have recommended this book to, and there have been several, have all returned demanding other titles. The White Darkness, partially set in Antarctica, manages to be wickedly funny as well as diabolically clever, featuring one of the most plausibly awful villains in all children’s literature. More recently Where the World Ends, set on a remote island off the West coast of Scotland, painted yet another unforgettable picture of humans up against nature, human and physical, in the attempt to say alive against all the odds. This also won the Carnegie Medal, and well before that there have been numbers of other prizes too.
Geraldine was once advised by her mother to ‘Never boil your cabbage twice,’ advice she has certainly taken to heart as a writer. Has there ever been a novelist, children’s or otherwise, who has chosen such a diverse range of setting and characters? Series are not for her, and this restlessness of her imagination may be one reason she has never had a massive readership with young readers seeking another dose of the same. But another likely explanation for her lack of a mass readership may lie with the novels themselves. For they can be demanding. Any suggestion of a pat, predictable narrative always disappears after the first chapter or so. If there are larger questions arising from the text, they will be discussed, not avoided.
Children’s literature has always operated as a broad church, and there should, indeed must, always be room made for top of the range novels along with everything else. But it is a shame that so many good books from the recent past, including many by Geraldine, have now slipped away from library shelves and otherwise can only be found as second-hand copies. We should be more carefully conserving of our greatest writers. And this is what she most certainly is. Not to have read her is to miss out on an experience like no other I can currently think of in all children’s literature and even beyond.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
The Supreme Lie, Usborne, 978-1474970686, £8.99 pbk
The Middle of Nowhere, Usborne, 978-1409570516, £6.99 pbk
The Kite Runner, OUP, 978-0192769596, £6.99 pbk
Stop the Train, OUP, 978-0192718815, £6.99 pbk
A Little Lower than the Angels, OUP, 978-0192752901, £6.99 pbk
A Pack of Lies, OUP, 978-0192752031, £6.99 pbk
Not the End of the World, OUP, 978-0192754325, £6.99 pbk
The White Darkness, OUP, 978-0192726186, £7.99 pbk
Where the World Ends, Usborne, 978-1474943437, £6.99 pbk
Plundering Paradise, OUP, 978-0192719942, O/P