Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge
Reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn
11 July 2007
Frances Hardinge's first book, Fly By Night, was a picaresque romp through an alternative landscape of civil war and puritan paganism, and a tale of a life that ran counter to the Big Picture. Mosca Mye and her goose slipped through the interstices of chaos naked of either of those two false friends of fantasy, whimsy, or destiny. Verdigris Deep confirms what I already suspected: Frances Hardinge is the best new fantasy writer for children since Diana Wynne Jones. There is simply no one to match her, and I include within that constituency the likes of Philip Pullman. Hardinge sees the world through wavy glass; her stories are a filo pastry of competing and complementing moral dilemmas; she is laugh-out-loud witty, and her wit strips layers off the world. She is one of the very few writers whose work I have ever read twice through at one sitting. And then returned to twice more within the same month. Each reading reveals more, and more, and more. Hardinge's writing is literature to grow with.
Verdigris Deep is a contemporary fantasy for which the nearest comparison I can think of is Diana Wynne Jones's Wilkins' Tooth (1973; USA, Witch's Business) or Eight Days of Luke (1975). Three children, Josh, Ryan, and Chelle, miss the bus, or rather the bus for which their tickets are eligible (the sideswipe at the consequences of bus privatisation is a typical Hardinge touch). Their attempts to get an abandoned supermarket trolley back to the parking bay so that they can reclaim its pound coin come to naught, and Josh, a year older than Ryan and Chelle and rather cockier, steals money from an old wishing well.
Initially, nothing much happens: then Ryan looks in a mirror and sees water running from his eyes, and passes a poster on which a woman comes alive, her eyes streaming like a fountain. The woman commands him to fulfil the wishes attached to each coin they stole. When Ryan contacts Chelle and Josh he discovers that each of them has acquired "powers" to aid this directive: Josh can now affect electricity and any item that can carry current, while Chelle has become a radio receiver for the wishers—in their vicinity she spills their every thought. Ryan's "power" remains hidden for a while, mere warts on his hand; but as things proceed the warts develop into eyes which can see the wishes people make as long smoky threads emerging from the chest.
Each child receives a power which could—as Ryan speculates—relate to their character. Chelle has always run off at the mouth: her conversation is an uncontrolled stream of consciousness. Josh is all sparks: wild ideas come to him in a matter of minutes. Ryan, in contrast, is very smart but a slow thinker, attentive and intense. But as the trio later discover, they have predecessors; they are not the first "Well's Angels." Hardinge refuses to let us see these powers as somehow insights into the protagonists, and these powers do not act in any way as catharsis. Unusually, this is not a book about personal growth per se; there are no arguments that adventure and fantasy are ipso facto bildungsroman. At the end, although each child will have learned something, there is no real change in behaviour or character—Chelle will still run off at the mouth, for example, but the alteration, and I think it is a crucial one in understanding what Hardinge wants the reader to take away, is that Ryan now listens. Ryan begins as passive audience, all too used to allowing his parents’ voices to pass over his head and this has shaped his chosen role in the world at large. By the end of Verdigris Deep, Ryan has begun to see the role of watcher as something active, hearing becomes listening becomes analysis.
Serving the spirit in the well begins as empowering fun: Ryan, Chelle, and Josh help a young man to win a Harley Davidson, and facilitate a young woman none of them like in finding her true love, but as the story develops it darkens: wishes become more worrying, some of them are out of date and no longer accord with people's desires yet must still be fulfilled, others are downright nasty or require nastiness to achieve. Ryan begins to realise that each wish is a horse chestnut: there's "the green prickly bit outside, and there's the real solid conker inside" (p. 221).
Back at home, Ryan is uncertain of everything: his parents argue, he has dreams of a Glasshouse where he can see everything that's happening that he doesn't want to know, and he is increasingly revolted by his mother's profession—writing scathing unauthorized biographies of the famous. And yet, "Despite her terrible timing, at that moment the sight of his mother, brandishing a vol au vent with one hand and firmly grasping the wrong end of the stick with the other, filled Ryan with a painful surge of love and pride." (p. 116). Home life is a glorious combination of love, chaos, and care. Hardinge weaves this thread deftly through the story, exploring how home stresses are never quite what they seem and how good intentions are not always enough. Parents parallel the mistakes that children make, and through these mistakes children come to see the adult world as one that is accessible because it is imperfect.
As the book rolls on to its crescendo, water and emotions flood the page. The ending is deeply satisfying: it is incomplete, problematic, and flows off the edge of the page.