It’s a Joan Aiken novel – what did you expect?

Smile of the Stranger

Nowadays everyone is a reviewer, but are they all on the same page…

Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in newspapers and book supplements as her many adult novels came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who are now able to share their thoughts on sites like Goodreads, or  to post their reviews on Amazon, and to see the wild variety of tastes and opinions that can be offered on individual readings of the same novel.

As a writer Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away – sometimes finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various unexpected or sometimes ghoulish ways… Romance, it has to be said, was not her forte. She believed that her books for children should have a positive outcome, with, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to younger readers who had followed, heart in mouth the adventures of her heroes and heroines.

But with her adult novels, whether Gothic period adventure or modern murder mystery, the outcome was never predictable…and there certainly wasn’t always a classically romantic outcome for her heroes and heroines. As one reviewer pointed out, ‘With Joan Aiken a good death can count as a happy ending.’ Heroines were as likely to come to grief as find a man; it was more likely that they would need to find a way to earn a living, but they would have encountered a lot of useful experience along the way…

Much seems to depend on the expectation of the reader, and here, often the cover design or publisher’s blurb can do more harm than good. When Joan Aiken’s novels used to appear in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – a terrified girl appeared to be running from a castle in a diaphanous nightdress while a brooding villain looked on – while the actual heroine of the novel in question might be described as a duffel-coat and jeans wearing gap toothed urchin – a kind of grown up Dido Twite perhaps? These ‘Gothic Romance’ covers have now given rise to a whole genre in themselves, and have their own fascinating backstory   but they haven’t necessarily helped the books find readers who will really appreciate them.

Instead, when novels are misrepresented with over dramatic cover art or enthusiastic but misleading publisher’s descriptions, then howls of rage and disappointment regularly pop up:

“It’s been marketed as a romance, which it isn’t. The “romance” in it is a one night stand followed by years of not communicating…”

Quite so, very sad.

But then another reader of the same story finds that:

“Aiken’s gift was that she understood human nature, and here it is in all its glory, in this book. Every part of it. The relationships are real, and complicated, and untidy, like all relationships.”

Whereas ‘Disappointed’ of Clacton finds:

“The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”

or another reader finds that for them the same novel offers:

“A psychological drama, love story, comedy, tragedy, cold war commentary, family drama, and is entirely brilliant and moving.”

So, Dear Reader, I share your rage and disappointment if you feel you were sold a pup, but if you want a thoughtful and slightly offbeat view of the world, sharing the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres, her wicked ear for dialogue, plus lots of interesting journeys to odd places, delicious dishes and sometimes heart-rending life experience, as opposed to sadly predictable romances full of flimsy make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her novels a go.

But don’t blame her for the blurb, dip in – which you can now easily do online – and you might find that far from being: ‘a waste of time’  ‘with no shooting’ (although there may be other unexpected deaths…) you may just have the luck to discover what one reader called  – ‘The loveliest book in the English Language!’

And I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t the one shown on the cover above…that one is wonderfully romantic!

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Find some of Joan Aiken’s Period novels here

and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here

Lots more coming to EBooks soon at Macmillan

 

 

 

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