Keeping Up with Old friends

The Shadow Guests

With over one hundred books published in her lifetime, Joan Aiken has contributed so much to the lives of her readers that some of her characters have lived on as a part of her readers’ own lives, like old  friends.

Everyone has that aha! moment as with the taste of Proust’s famous Madeleine, when they catch sight of a faded cover in a second-hand book store, or these days perhaps on an internet book site, which takes them straight back to a time, a place, an old friend? Even if these books go out of print, it seems that these days there are still ways to find them again.

Perhaps for you one of these was a boy called Cosmo – in Joan Aiken’s   The Shadow Guests    not just a lonely boy, but one haunted by a family curse, and with a story which draws on experiences from Joan’s own childhood – as remembered here by Chris Lovegrove for Goodreads:

“Joan Aiken was one of those writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life. The story opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.

Cosmo has been sent to stay in what at first appears to be a rural idyll outside Oxford. His female cousin, an eccentric but reassuring Oxford don that I wanted to like, is strangely the only weak character in the story: I couldn’t quite accept that an academic could come up with some of the pseudo-scientific language and concepts that she occasionally uses. However, Cosmo’s experiences as a weekly boarder at a minor a fee-paying school on the Woodstock Road, though seemingly anachronistic for the 1980s, probably reflected the arcane and traditionalist nature of that kind of institution which no doubt continues to this day; Aiken may have drawn on her own experiences as a 12-year-old at Wychwood Boarding School in Oxford in 1936.

The core of this novel is Cosmo’s attempt to cope with the notion that his bloodline was cursed around two thousand years ago: do curses work, and if they do can they persist over the millennia? I was unconvinced both by the ability of certain characters to recount circumstantial details of all that time ago and the final dramatic resolution of the mystery in the closing pages. However, Cosmo was an admirable and personable boy, he called on inner resources when faced with paranormal experiences, and was very much in the mould of the traditional British lad familiar from Empire writers, exhibiting all those commendable virtues that perhaps were disappearing in the late 20th century. In short, it was a heart-warming tale but a tad unrealistic, given the supernatural premise. Oh, and the shadow guests of the title? They are the manifestations of individuals from Cosmo’s ancestral past, some less shadowy than others, and not all very welcome as guests.”

5129776 Chris Lovegrove 2012

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