Tomek sells everything essential in his village grocery shop, from rubber hot-water bottles to bear knives. The essential worth of a bear knife will be confirmed before long in this novel first published in France in 2000, where it has sold more than a million copies. Andersen are making it available in English through Ros Schwartz’s translation, with its conversational narrative voice suggesting gentle comedy even when danger threatens on every side.
Tomek may be only 13, but he runs his always-open store with both confidence and modesty. He is an orphan, but very much at home in the community; secretly, though, he has an increasing hunger to see more of the world. One day, a girl calls at the shop. She asks if Tomek sells barley sugars (of course he does). While trading a single sweet for a farthing, Tomek is helplessly entranced by “this little scrap of a girl. It was love at first sight”. She seems to like him too, and his shop. Does he sell hat elastic? Yes. Pictures of kangaroos? Yes. Does he have some water from the River Qjar? Because that’s what she really wants. No, he doesn’t, and indeed he’s never heard of it. The River Qjar, she tells him, flows backwards and upside down and a single drop of water from that river can stop any living thing from dying.
The girl sets off in search of the River Qjar. Before long, Tomek can’t help himself; he shuts up shop and sets off in search of the girl who’s in search of the River Qjar. So the tale becomes a quest, soon leading Tomek into the Forest of Oblivion. Here, alarming tricks invade the memory; as if that were not enough, Oblivion is home to enormous and terrifying bears, which Tomek duly encounters. Fortunately he’s also met the life-embracing Marie, who happens by in her creaking cart pulled by a freely-farting donkey. They make it through the woods to a vast Meadow, populated by mysterious plants whose scent induces the oddest hallucinations. Next, Tomek finds himself in a village of cheery, albeit overweight, perfume-makers. Tomek’s search must continue, so he sets sail with the grizzled seafarer, Captain Bastibalagom, to The Island-That-Isn’t which, thanks to Tomek’s wit and bravery becomes The Island-That-Is. And that’s far from the end of the story, since he’s still in search of the River Qjar. And the girl whose name, he has learned, is Hannah.
M. Mourlevat is very good at creating magical places, ingenious situations promising risk and excitement, and characters with strong qualities such as merriment or courage or thoughtful empathy. By way of evil, though, when Tomek continues his quest in his small boat, he suddenly finds there’s a hag of a witch riding to and fro above him on a swing suspended from a black rainbow, challenging him to solve her riddle. The price of failure is eternal drowning.
It might be that this tale could divide young readers according to their expectations. Those who thrive on the kind of blood-letting violence they might find on a screen, might think those situations promising danger and action are resolved rather tamely; the bear in Oblivion, for example, simply turned its back and shambled off in the opposite direction. On the other hand, readers who enjoy exploring a magical adventure through comic telling and reflection will surely relish an unusual and memorable experience.