Sometimes it can feel as if all story concepts have already been written for this age group, and a family holiday where witches surface, and four children and a dog come to the rescue on a Cornish coast, doesn’t sound terribly original. And yet, this is a stormingly brilliant read filled with wit, passion, pace and perfect characterisation. It is bold and it is different.
Orla and her two brothers are taken to a Cornish holiday home in lieu of a family holiday in France, little realising that they and their mother have been lured there by a coven of witches. Orla is descended from one of the most powerful witches to have existed, and the witch’s ancient curse is poisoning the land, destroying wildlife, and killing people, and apparently only Orla can undo it. But first, she’ll need to decipher who she is and what exactly she needs to do, and she’ll also need the help of her brothers, new friend Raven, and her intelligent dog, Dave.
Haslam is The Sunday Times Chief Travel Writer, and here setting is crucial to plot and character.The Cornish coast is acutely delineated, but Haslam also throws in familiar story tropes, such as an out-of-the-way holiday cottage, dark and threatening woods, and stormy seas. But his most memorable settings are the witch’s houses; each is disturbing with an assortment of bones and herbs and strange souvenirs cluttering the rooms in the witches’ attempts to ward off evil spirits.
Against this backdrop sits the very real Orla, fresh from the 21st century, and simply delectable with her matter-of-fact outlook, and her constant levelheadedness, as she proclaims how she’s just a Londoner on holiday. Pitted against the superstition, curses, and witchcraft of her new surroundings, this constant rubbing against the modern outlook of Googling, messaging, and fact-stating makes for a humorous and compelling read.
At times, Haslam veers off into Dave the dog’s point of view – the family’s chief of security, and whereas in another instance this may seem twee, here the tiny glimpses of his voice are pitched perfectly – they add wisdom and hilarity to the sometime horrific circumstances: the horror of nasty untimely deaths, dark menacing shadows, and life-sucking jewellery.
Original and bursting with life, there are still nods to the canon of children’s literature – Enid Blyton, Susan Cooper and more, the pace besting that of Blyton, and yet the vocabulary and emotional intelligence, as well as tropes of good and evil, competing with The Dark is Rising. There’s also the slight metaphor for the witch’s curse of the earth being parallel with our own pollution of the environment, and looking to youth such as Greta Thunberg to save it.
The children themselves riff on their adventure as if they are aware of being in a story – not splitting up in the dead of night because it’s a classic ‘horror movie fail’ is one such example, bringing a wry smile to the reader, but also completely bearing out the characterisation of the children – they feel distinct and authentic. They are also, refreshingly, risk-takers.
This is a brilliantly gripping novel, pacey, funny and fresh. Haslam may excel at settings, but he’s obviously met some strange characters on his travels – because here his characterisation is excellent. A most impressive children’s debut.