Joan Aiken writing at her very best was the reader’s perfect companion. She was well travelled, cultured, with a wealth of personal experience, and the ability not just to tell a gripping story, but to draw the reader in to the very process of writing. What she loved was to hold her audience in a juggling act of belief and disbelief, caught up in the whirl of the dance as she hurtled through her story, at the full stretch of her imagination, while inviting you to share in the full enjoyment of her talents.
The ideal read on holiday then, or even a substitute for one, would be her fantastic romp of a novel, The Butterfly Picnic (in the US known as A Cluster of Separate Sparks.) In one perfect package she gives you a thriller and a trip to a Greek island…
Imagine for example a much needed siesta on a camp bed in a cool, black and white cobbled courtyard, with scented jasmine and grape vines growing from scarlet painted bomb cases, populated by wiry and warring skinny cats and a scolding old granny, just as likely to give you a warm hug as lecture you about your sunburn. Joan Aiken allows you to share the agonising pain and delirium of that sunburn, but also the heavenly delight of a life-saving ice cream bought with your last five Greek drachmae – ‘a kind of custard ice, rather solid, with bits of plain hard chocolate and candied orange peel scattered about its interior’ – which of course comes with ‘a big beautiful glass of water, dripping with condensation.’
But this is only the background for an absurd amount of plot – to quote one jacket blurb:
“Georgia Marsh comes to the island of Dendros to forget her dead lover and in search of a job. Within hours she has witnessed the murder of her beautiful cousin, been kidnapped by Arab guerrillas, and finds herself involved in an international conspiracy in the mountain-top fortress cum experimental school run by a powerful millionaire known as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. Only after a series of harrowing brushes with death and a climactic confrontation in a cloud of butterflies does she…”
Well I’m not going to give away the entire plot as they do, but even so, there is an enormous amount more!
Add to this discussions about, for example, the transmigration of souls (with one of the kidnappers), or the invention of an entire philosophy known as the Muddle Principle, expounded by a Swedish instructor called Ole Sodso, (‘the human race prefers muddle and will get into one if it possibly can’), her own wonderfully inventive creation of a therapeutic school for the care of traumatised children, and then throughout it all, the fully conscious exposé of the method of narration she is using in her novel as she writes it… sounds crazy? It is.
First ( with a murderer) our heroine engages in a comparison of the narrative methods of various earlier authors such as Charles Dickens or Tolstoy, and then of unlovable characters in fiction, together with the possibility that their faults were unsuspected by their creators – such as Jane Austen’s prissy Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.
(Spoiler alert!!! But don’t worry there is so much more…)
Georgia and a possible would-be murderer are both reading Dickens’ Bleak House, and so Joan Aiken has her heroine see herself in a playful comparison with the earlier novel’s horribly perfect, but sadly plain protagonist, Esther Summerson. To distract herself she wonders how Esther would have coped with some of the awful predicaments – as listed in the blurb above – in which she now finds herself. How would it be, she wonders, if she was the heroine of a novel?
Here is a taster – we meet our heroine – broke, desperately tired and hungry, waiting in vain in a searingly hot harbour-side cafe for the arrival of her cousin.
(And no, we never do discover what Georgia looks like!)
In short, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts, and like the very best kind of holiday, leaves you feeling you have had the perfect escape…with the most delightfully entertaining travelling companion.
The Butterfly Picnic (aka A Cluster of Separate Sparks)
read more on The Joan Aiken Website