Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Spectre of Danger

Exposure. Transparency. I thought about these words while reading a book recently--a children's book--that I had considered to be wonderfully original. The main character--a superintendent's child--enters the apartment of a quirky, nay strange, tenant and finds herself looking through objects: everything but the ceiling in this apartment is made of glass including the floor. She can even see the tenants below.

The issue of transparency in this novel is not incidental or an accident of production. Olivia Kidney, the titular character created by Ellen Potter, finds a world turned inside out in which what isn't normally seen is exposed. The author uses various devices such as humour and psychic phenomena in order to achieve this and Olivia learns that things don't always appear as they seem: this is sometimes dangerous and sometimes not.

Reading this book brought back so many memories. Back in the mid-90s, I lived in a three-story walk-up in the middle of downtown. It wasn't in the least glamourous: dingy, yellow walls absorbed the smoke from unidentified burning substances while a feckless 'superintendent' sat on the front steps mentally recording everyone's activities. I didn't want to be there but I couldn't bring myself to leave: there was something familiar about the bizarre array of occupants, even about the strangeness of everyone and everything. It takes time to reach that level of familiarity.

Olivia Kidney knows this well. She has moved from building to building as her father is fired and hired as superintendent around the city. Settling and developing friendships are difficult--if not foreign--ideas for Olivia and her initial uneasiness isn't exactly quelled by the occupants of this latest building.

Again, more memories arise for me. An elderly woman befriended me. 'Ursula' called me--whether I liked it or not--daily and once cryptically warned me: "Nothing is as it seems in this building." When pressed for more information, she squirmed away from the conversation. I never did find out what she meant but Olivia is more fortunate in that she gains insight into the nature of both her surroundings and her relationships.

In this little girl, you'll find courage, strength and a fractured sense of well-being after traumatic experiences. You'll also find sorrow, anger and a determination to conquer her fears.

You'll also find her funny because Ellen Potter has a sense of humour and she's not afraid to show it. At the outset of the novel, Olivia carries around a book--about seances--that once belonged to her older brother. The following is the most original passage that I've ever read concerning the paranormal:
The first chapter of the book was full of warnings. It told of all the bad things that could happen if you didn't conduct your seance properly. It seemed that dead people could be quite ornery about being disturbed. If you didn't summon them in the right way, they might pinch your leg or tackle you to the floor. Then there were the boring dead people. If you had the misfortune to summon one of these, they could yabber on and on about bathroom towels and how the weather was so terribly changeable, and what sorts of plants were best for indoors. And they would not leave either, even after the seance was over. That was because none of the other dead people would talk to them. So they would float next to you, blathering and blathering without stopping, night and day. In some instances boring dead people literally drove living people insane. In fact, the book said, many psychiatric hospitals are 40 percent full of people who have accidentally summoned a boring ghost.
One problematic area of Olivia Kidney is the pace. Olivia leaves an elevator and enters the unknown; maybe she lingers in certain areas longer than necessary. It did seem to slow considerably in the middle but it regained its momentum near the end.

At one point, Potter introduces the possibility of insanity but it is fleeting. You are supposed to decide if Olivia is delusional or if she is experiencing the paranormal. I don't think that this device was necessary. First, Olivia Kidney is not a genre gothic novel and the question of sanity is not required. Secondly, the novel could stand its own ground in an argument about the paranormal. There are sufficient numbers of those who believe in the paranormal to ensure that this book will reach a wide audience.

There are so many features of this book that deserve discussion but the scope of this blog entry won't cover them. Besides, it's better to discover these for yourself. At any rate, this is the kind of book that you'll read in uncomfortable positions if necessary.

Book Information:

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Author: Ellen Potter
Illustrated: Peter H. Reynolds
Publisher: Puffin Books (2004)
Format: Paperback, 160 pp
Trim Size: 12.9 cm x 19.7 cm
ISBN: 0-14-240234-6
Reading Level: Ages 8 - 12

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