This book is a prequel to McKay’s famous Saffy’s Angel, the winner of the 2002 Whitbread prize. Caddy, who will grow up to become the glamorous young woman of the earlier book, is here a 12-year-old. The book explains how Caddy came to have so little self-confidence and to rely excessively on her trump card – her looks. In this earlier episode her world is turned upside down.
Indigo, the boy who will grow up with a fear of heights, and Saffy, the girl who will learn that she is adopted, are small children. The Casson parents, Eve and Bill, are as chaotic and ill-organised as they are in Saffy’s story.
The action centres upon the birth of Rose, the baby who only just survives. Before her arrival Rose is known as ‘the firework baby’ because her birth is expected to coincide with Guy Fawkes. In the event such hopes are eclipsed. When she is born Rose needs heart surgery. Much of the book centres upon doubts whether the baby can survive. One of the interests of the younger children is laying dead pets to rest. Indigo digs a grave for the baby just in case, and is very proud of its neat corners. The reader will see that McKay’s talent for macabre humour is undiminished.
Outside the direct members of the Casson family we are introduced to three of Caddy’s best friends, Alison who is aloof and hates everyone, Beth who is ostensibly neat, perfect and kind and Ruby, who is an academic prodigy and also has an uncanny knack for fixing things. One of McKay’s particular talents in this book is her ability to command for these peripheral characters as profound a concern in the reader as is felt for the most central characters.
In a typically bizarre episode we learn that Beth has a much-loved horse. Unfortunately she finds that she is growing too big for the horse. Her studies lead her to believe that the Normans were expert dieticians. But the Norman diet she adopts (eat practically nothing) makes her unwell.
McKay’s greatest gift is her ability to clothe incidents in weird and ludicrous details. Once encountered, these episodes are rarely forgotten. Sarah, the girl in a wheelchair who will become such a driving force in Saffy’s tale, features only marginally here. Caddy and her friends learn that Mrs Warbeck, the head of the academy that Ruby hopes to join, has a daughter whose legs don’t work. They speculate vaguely about why. The scene is set for Sarah’s transformational entry into the story.