Reviewed by Lory Widmer Hess
For over sixty years – starting about age sixteen and continuing right up until her death in 2004 – storyteller extraordinaire Joan Aiken wrote tales about an otherwise ordinary British family who just happen to become involved in magical adventures, with wild and hilarious results. Formerly available in scattered publications, some long out of print, they have now been gathered into one volume including four previously unpublished stories, in fulfillment of one of the author’s last wishes. Together with an illuminating new introduction by Joan Aiken’s daughter Lizza, and amusing line drawings by Peter Bailey, this is a very welcome addition to the family library, one that will both delight the author’s many fans and provide a splendid introduction to her work for those who have not encountered it before. The Armitage stories came about almost by accident. The first one was written as a sort of joke – the sixteen-year-old Joan penned it as ‘a kind of skit’ parodying some Children’s Hour programmes that her stepfather was writing at the time about a middle-class family and their talking pets. ‘Yes, But Today Is Tuesday’ introduces us to young Mark and Harriet and their parents, who are accustomed to unusual things happening on Mondays (such as two Round Table knights having a combat on their lawn, or all the potatoes in the larder turning into glass apples), but not at all sure how to deal with a unicorn in the garden on a Tuesday.
At this moment their father came out into the garden for his after-breakfast stroll. At the sight of the unicorn he paused, stared at it, and finally remarked: ‘Nonsense. Today is Tuesday. It must have got left over from last night. It was very careless of you not to have noticed it, Harriet.’ The unicorn looked at him amiably and began to wash itself like a cat.
Alongside having to rescue the unicorn from his cruel wizardly owner, the children must deal with the authorities who insist that they buy the beast a license, and have him shod at the village blacksmith. (‘What, you again?’ exclaimed Mr. Ellis. ‘I thought today was Tuesday.’) Such absurd logic is a hallmark of the Armitage stories, which continue to surprise and delight us with ridiculous, yet strangely convincing situations. Harriet is taken out to tea by a family friend who happens to be a ghost; the three Furies of Greek mythology take up residence in the coal cellar; Mr. and Mrs. Armitage are turned into ladybirds after they unwittingly offend the Society of Old Fairy Ladies with offers of charity; a witch-cum-journalist steals Granny’s quince tree and has to be foiled by a clever trick. From an early age Aiken was a master of one of the most vital tasks of the fantasy writer: she knew how to combine the ordinary and extraordinary in a way that allows us to enter fully into her fictional world. Of course we laugh, because we know that unicorns do not in fact pop up in suburban gardens and allow their licenses to be paid for with gold coins that are combed out of their tails; but we still are left with a half-conscious, wistful longing that we might be lucky enough to have such wonders happen to us too.
As one would expect from stories written over a long period of time, these are not uniform in tone or style. More than half of them date from Aiken’s first decade and a half as a published writer, and were part of what kept her afloat during a rather desperate time as a widowed mother of a young family on the edge of insolvency. These earlier tales tend toward rampant whimsicality and silly puns, but later a more serious vein starts to creep in. Some, like “The Looking-Glass Tree” and “Kitty Snickersnee,” have a touch of the macabre element that Aiken explored more fully in some of her other writing for children and adults, while still fitting into the generally ebullient mood of the Armitage world. Most stunning of all for readers of any age is the title story, in which after painstakingly building up and bringing us into the magical “serial garden” (a characteristically Aikenish pun — the garden is cut out from the backs of cereal boxes), we and the characters are left hanging without a satisfying resolution. A hint of redemption comes in a couple of the later stories, but it’s a remarkable example of how Aiken’s imagination followed laws of its own, without pandering to commercial expectations or popular tastes.
When we’re reading an Armitage story, we can never be quite sure what to expect, yet we know that somehow it will reshape our sense of reality. I can almost guarantee that you won’t be able to stop after reading just one of these funny, effervescent stories, with their wicked sense of humor and lurking shadow of melancholy. Do yourself a favor, get this collection, and settle down for some serious entertainment.
Lory Widmer Hess blogs about her reading journey at The Emerald City Book Review.
Joan Aiken, The Serial Garden (Virago Children’s Classics: London, 2015). 978-0349005850, 448pp., paperback.