(aka Well Witched in the USA)
My morning walk to work takes me past the National Gallery of Victoria, and past the gallery’s huge water feature, a thing loaded and glimmering with tossed-in coins. And no doubt, with those coins, wishes. Every now and then I’ll walk past to find that the water feature appears to have been cleaned out, and I find myself wondering what has become of those coins and the wishes that they represent.
In Verdigris Deep, Frances Hardinge takes things a good deal further than my own vague thoughts about coins and wishes, drawing on folklore to devise a marvellous, eerie tale of well spirits, wishes gone terribly wrong and the corrupting nature of power. It’s my second outing with Hardinge, and I can say that with her vivid, unpatronising prose, wonderful creativity, and unflinching willingness to challenge her readers, she’s certainly wedged herself firmly in my bookish heart alongside the likes of Diana Wynne Jones and Kate Forsyth.
Ryan, Josh and Chelle are dashing to catch their bus home from the forbidden area of Magwhite when they realise that they’re short of coins. Ever the quick thinker, Josh, the entrepreneurial, devil-may-care individual of the group, retrieves a handful of coins from a nearby well and uses them to pay the fare. All’s well that ends well.
At least, temporarily.
Each of the three begins to notice changes. Chatty Chelle finds that she’s able to tune into the thoughts of others, and that she’s unable to keep from parroting those thoughts. Thoughtful, near-sighted Ryan begins to develop a strange type of second sight that manifests as wart-like eyeballs on his hands. Josh’s sparky personality begins to extend to a mastery over all things electromagnetic. The children soon realise that by stealing the coins from the well, they’ve unwittingly accepted responsibility for granting the wishes associated with those coins.
But as they set about doing so, they find that the wishes they grant have consequences that are rarely positive. While Josh leaps into the wish-granting fray with abandon, striving to grant even those most horrid, audacious of wishes, Chelle and Ryan both find themselves musing on the very nature of wishes. It’s Ryan who realises that, like a conker, there are two elements to a wish: the prickly outside that seems to be the wish, and the hard interior that is the actual wish. When people make their wishes, it seems, they may say one thing while meaning something entirely different–such as the man who wishes for a Harley Davidson, when what he really wants is to be the type of person who rides a Harley Davidson.
Things slowly unravel around the children as their efforts to right things in a world where the very nature of right is in question go terribly awry. Hardinge juxtaposes the literal wish-fulfilment and its outcomes against the backdrop of the children’s lives. Like the wishers whose problems the children are trying to solve, they all have their own problems, things they wish could be magicked away because they don’t know how to deal with them. Or things they believe they wish will come true.
There’s Josh’s desire to be noticed by his parents, who are so caught up in their own world that they have little time for him–which explains in part his willingness to act on his god-like powers. There’s Ryan’s dislike of his biographer mother’s career and the painful consequences it has for her subjects. There’s Chelle’s gaucheness and her inability to fit in, and the way that her newfound gossiping power both ingratiates her into Ryan and Josh’s friendship while alienating her from others. There’s so much going on here, but Hardinge treats her young readers with the respect and equality that they deserve, never speaking down to them, and never offering a simple, pat solution. Things aren’t easily or neatly resolved, and nor should they be in a book about the consequences of simplistic wishes.
Though very different in tone and setting from her debut, Verdigris Deep is rich and complex, compellingly alive with all of Hardinge’s famously explorative prose, and elegantly, carefully layered. Do seek it out.
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Other books by Frances Hardinge: