Here’s a bold premise for a fantasy adventure; so bold that it would be a shame to reveal it. But the fact that it takes place when the nuclear arms race is just hotting up and that the climax includes a young physicist called Andrei Sakharov may offer a clue. For a reader with an interest in history and a memory that goes back that far, the beginning, supposedly set in 1950s England isn’t promising.
14-year-old Janie is transplanted to London from Hollywood when her script writer parents flee the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunt. However, this is a London which is unintentionally chronologically and culturally instable. Janie arrives at Heathrow, although London airport wouldn’t be known as that for another fourteen years. Her classmates at her English school are threatened with ‘de-merits’ and her new found English friend, Benjamin, is sure she would have enjoyed ‘girly sleepovers’ in the States, so coining a term unknown even across the Atlantic until at least thirty years later. Even the apothecary and his shop from which the book takes its title is an anachronism, the name having died out in common speech more than a hundred years before, being replaced by chemist and chemist’s shop. And add to all that, Pip, a cockney waif and stray straight out of a Dickensian reformatory.
Nevertheless, having bemoaned such anachronisms at some length (and there are more of them), they don’t really matter (apart from the claims of historical accuracy made for the novel). They merely heighten the sense of unreality which Meloy handles so adeptly and with such verve and sense of fun as the story enters into ever greater flights of fancy. Here cold war espionage and double cross is mixed up with an ancient book of herbal lore that offers potent concoctions for invisibility, truth telling and avian transformation, enabling the children to make effective, and often incidentally amusing, interventions in a deadly adult game involving the most destructive weapons ever devised. If one reviewer’s mention of Philip Pullman perhaps oversells the story, it does have the same surface playfulness and underlying seriousness (although some might think this is a subject which merits rather more seriousness); and the same relish for adventure and character. The book contains some fine illustrations by Ian Schoenherr which are ingeniously integrated with the text. Well worth reading.