It’s like we’re complementary colours…you know what those are, right? Colours that make each other disappear? So if you cross red with green—or blue with orange, or yellow with purple—you get a pale, pale colour, almost white…
Interestingly, though, if you put complementary colours next to each other, they make each other shine much more brightly.
I wonder what would happen if you and I met? Would we kill each other off, or make each other glow?
Madeleine Tully has been corresponding with a parking meter. Or perhaps via a parking meter, to be accurate. A gap has opened between our world and that of the Kingdom of Cello, a gap just large enough through which a letter can be posted; a gap in a parking meter. At least so the letter-writer tells Madeleine, who goes along with what she sees as her correspondent’s imaginative feats despite her clear disbelief: “I feel that maybe you’re planning to rip off Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights,” she tells him.
Her correspondent is Elliot Baranski, a boy who lives in a world that is a curious regional mishmash where the seasons wander about at their whim, a day of summer chasing a day of winter rather in the manner of my native Melbourne. But unlike Melbourne, which is known for having a populace that’s uniformly clad in black, Cello is all about colour. Just as the seasons sweep through Cello, so too do colours, which travel through almost like storms, each colour frequency affecting the people of Cello in a different way. Some colours are physically harmful, while others bring romantic notions or an obsessive need for achievement.
It’s a concept that encourages all sorts of real-life parallels: the dangers of focused light such as those from lasers; the use of light-boxes in northern Europe to help combat the seasonal affective disorder brought about by the never-ending twilight of winter. Though Madeleine pooh-poohs the notion of her pen-pal living in such a world, believing it to be nothing more than a fantasy, her study of Isaac Newton and his scientific breakthroughs regarding light sees her applying Elliot’s creative analogies to her own difficult situation; Elliot, on the other hand, applies Madeleine’s research about Newton in a more literal manner—and both have fascinating results.
A Corner of White is a strange and wonderful book, and much of its beauty comes from the very same phenomenon that Madeleine muses over in her letter: it’s not just Madeleine and Elliot who are complementary, but also their stories and their worlds.
Although it’s Madeleine who lives in our magic-free world, her story often feels almost as fantastical as Elliot’s. She lives with her mother, the two of them apparently having fled from her father, a tremendously wealthy, influential man for whom every door seems to open. But instead of the riches and wonders of their previous life, Madeleine and her mother are living virtually as paupers, making do in Cambridge in a tiny apartment, a stockpile of beans, and a delightful sense of whimsy. Their riches-to-rags tale feels fantastical, and it’s rendered in a way that seems to recall Victorian children’s literature: it’s vivid and curious, and yet mysterious. We only know of Madeleine’s past what she shares with her friends, and there seems to be far more to it than meets the eye.
Curiously, Madeleine seems to see the world in a peripheral manner, taking it in almost out of the corner of her eye, rather than looking headlong at it. She speaks of liking both Elliot and her friend Jack well enough, but of their perceived alter egos—what she believes to be the fantasy-world Elliot and Jack’s history research subject Lord Byron—even more. She also mentions enjoying engaging with facts because they “take her sideways”, an approach her increasingly distant mother seems to take as well. Given all this, I suspect that there’s more to both Madeleine’s background and her mother’s health problems than is revealed in this first volume of a planned trilogy.
Elliot, on the other hand, though living in a world that is parallel to ours, is strangely far more grounded than Madeleine. He’s practical and pragmatic where Madeleine is dreamy and disconnected, and the contrast only strengthens the strange aspect of Cello. There’s a languid humour to the world-building that only enhances the moments of darkness, and there’s an uneasiness that slowly surfaces as we begin to learn more about the politics of the world.
For all these complements and contrasts, however, we’re constantly reminded of a thread of similarity and sameness that runs through the two worlds, and of course, our two key characters. Isaac Newton, who was behind the discovery of white light and the way in which it can be broken down into a spectrum, figures in both Elliot’s world and Madeleine’s, this perhaps being a representation of the universality of science, rationality, and our innate desire to both create and reason. The spectrum of light, too, applies on so many levels: whereas in Elliot’s world light is used as a sort of geological phenomenon, in Madeleine’s, the spectrum colours occur as “auras”.
It applies as well to A Corner of White itself. If this book were a light colour, it would be white. At first glance it may seem simple, but when put beneath the prism of the keen reader, it exposes its true nature: a shimmering double rainbow of colours. It’s utterly delightful, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel.
With thanks to PanMacmillan for the review copy
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