Mobile Library is a fable about fables and a book that oozes a love of children’s literature. It is a tale of unlikely heroes and heroines, where the goodies are complex but the baddies are truly bad.
The story explores many themes. One is the nature of family and parenting, as it follows a group of characters as they steal and travel the country in a disguised mobile library. There is an abused boy (Bobby), a girl with learning difficulties (Rosa), a mother accused of abduction (Val) and a homeless ex-serviceman (the Caveman) and these imperfect characters form a new loving ‘family’. Amongst these, Bobby is an unhappy child but also a valiant hero, with his counting and recording and the archives that store memories of his dead mother. He takes revenge on bullies and manages to escape from his father and uncaring home into a new ‘family’ and the world of children’s books. It was also refreshing to have such a lively portrait of a disabled girl where her disablement is a side issue.
Another is the mobile library that crosses the country and the children’s books it contains, offering an escape (real and imaginary). The books offer lessons for life, guides to morality and actions, and offer something that can soothe us through dark times. It is a paean to the value of literature where ‘Every problem they would face had been solved in countless next chapters already’. Also for reader it stirs our own memories of childhood reading and the heroes and villains of classic tales that are lodged in our psyche are also stirred. The gives the book the sense that its setting is both now and in the past.
As for writing style, we thought it clever, fresh and modern, with short chapters and sharp but evocative description. There are some lovely turns of phrase ( ‘…petrol poisoned puddles’), aphorisms for life (‘Hope is a constant pilot light in the soul’) and warming observation (.. pride an confidence, those twin spires that rise from the soul when you have a good friend’). The structure is also clever in that the introduction is the end but not the denouement.
One of our big debates was whether the book was for adults or children. Our conclusion was that, although it drew on fairy tale themes and had a seemingly naïve style, it was an adult read. The ideas are complex and layered and, as adults, we see through the literary tropes and icons and reflect on what they might mean in a modern world. In this we are warmed by our own memories of childhood and reading these memories bring extra meaning to the storyline. Also the book has dark themes about abuse, neglect and grief, and we all cringed and winced as Bobby’s friend Sunny broke bones in his body in the hope that the accumulation orthopaedic pins would turn him into a Cyborg. The central characters are flawed, and in the case of the Caveman rather frightening. Many of us felt that despite the cloak of fantasy and fairy tale, there was something disturbing about the book…but then many classic fairy tales are disturbing.
As a result the book is an unusual hybrid of ‘real life’ and modern fairy tale and to enjoy it the reader must be able to accept the surreal elements. Escaping in a mobile library van that has been hurriedly painted white to a semi-derelict castle and zoo in Scotland fails the reality test and if this is what the reader is looking for, it is not for them. You will also be wondering where on earth were Social Services.
Overall it was an engaging and original read that is deceptively simple. It draws on your own memories of childhood reading but does something new and imaginative with them.
We are an open book group linked to the University of Plymouth through its Peninsula Arts Centre. We meet monthly at a cafe/bar called Carpe Diem, which we like not only as a good meeting place but also as an attitude and because we are watched over by a book angel (see photo).
Everyone gets to nominate a book and we are about to try to widen the genre of books we read to include some classics and more sci-fi which have not been prominent in our choices too date. Our discussions are lively as we often have very different reactions to books and their characters, which reminds us all about people’s individuality.