11 March 2014
**Five Stars** (Despite that mouse…)
This weekend I took advantage of the glorious weather to sit in the garden and read Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell. I started this book over a month ago in readiness for the Nosy Crow Book Club, but when the meeting got moved I put it to one side. I’m rather glad I did, as coming to it for a second time I found that my early reservations about it were unfounded.
The Book in Your Hands
Holding this book for the first time spent shivers down my spine – I felt a serious urge to reach for the kind of white kid gloves you see in those documentaries about ancient manuscripts. It truly is a work of art – and certainly throws down the gauntlet to anyone daring to suggest that kids will soon all be migrating to ebooks!
With its shimmering purple-edged pages, handsome black, silver and purple colour palette, and silver reflective skulls adorning the end pages it is surely a must-have for all young bookworms. The black ribbon bookmark adds a perfect Goth Girl finish. Any discerning 8-10 year-old receiving this book as a gift will, I am certain, be more than a little thrilled. I couldn’t resist a few photos 🙂
Ada Goth (who bears a striking resemblance to a young Helena Bonham Carter, something that I don’t think will be lost on young Harry Potter fans) lives in Ghastly-Gorn Hall along with her father, Lord Goth, an army of servants scattered around far-flung wings, a few forgotten house guests and a gaggle of household ghosts. Lord Goth, a heartbroken widower who passes his time shooting garden gnomes from his hobby horse, prefers Ada to be heard and not seen, and so insists that she wear clumpy boots around the house so that he knows when she’s coming and can avoid her. He limits their meetings to weekly cups of tea in his study. (Ada reminds Lord Goth too much of her mother who died in a tight-rope walking accident one stormy night…)
Ada is between nannies and has time on her hands. This is just as well, because when she meets a mouse-ghost called Ishmael it sets off a train of events in which she uncovers a dastardly plot by the indoor gamekeeper, Maltravers, to entrap exotic animals for Lord Goth’s annual indoor hunt party as part of a secret money spinning racket he has going on on the side. Soon after meeting Ishmael, Ada discovers two younger house guests of her own age, Emily and William, who introduce her to some of the younger servants through the secret ‘Attic Club’ – and together they help her overcome Maltravers’ plans. You get the gist..!
After a false start – and mouse notwithstanding (on which more below) – I loved this book. Think A Series of Unfortunate Events meets Alice in Wonderland meets The Famous Five, with a bit of The Secret Garden, The Children of Green Knowe and a Vampire Mary Poppins thrown in for good measure. It’s so off the wall that it’s a delight. The illustrations are outstanding and equally wacky – and complemented here and there by amusing ‘footnotes’ (illustrated by a cut-off foot with quill between toes) that run down the side of the page.
The story is packed with references to classical literature, Gothic tales, and fictional and historical characters, most of which will go over the heads of young readers. This is what made me smart when I first picked it up – it felt self-indulgent and too clever by half – but in fact this doesn’t matter. Where kids do recognise the references – whether from books they have read or films or made-for-TV movies they have seen – it will make them giggle. For example, the previous governesses Hebe Poppins who “walked like a penguin and was always bursting into song”, and “Jane Ear” who “wasn’t really very interested in being a governess at all. Instead she spent all her time making cups of tea and knocking on Lord Goth’s study door.” Likewise the discovery of and images of the door not just to “The Secret Garden” but also to “The Even More Secret Garden”.
However where young readers won’t see any connection (which, to be honest, will be in most cases) they will nevertheless delight in the wacky names and back stories (‘Mary Shellfish’, the distinguished lady novelist who has a soft spot for Lord Goth, ‘Mrs Beat’em’ the head cook who makes her scullery maids weep, or another of the previous governesses, Marianne Delacroix, who had called herself a revolutionary and had taught Ada “several rousing songs in French, how to knit and how to construct a sturdy barricade…” – oh and “a contraption for slicing the heads off dolls…”).
For adults who may be reading to their children these references add a wonderful layer of amusement – albeit also frustration and a nagging self-doubt trying to recognise them all. I read somewhere that this book was more a self-indulgence for the author than a great book for children. I have to disagree because I think it’s both – hats off to Chris Riddell for pulling that off. He must have had such fun writing it!
Is it original? Well in an odd way not it’s not really – its wacky plot and characters remind me too much of A Series of Unfortunate Events – although the placing of a young Goth Girl at its heart is clever. But I don’t think the echo of other books matters at all, because in my experience children don’t care about ‘original’ – they just want a good yarn with strong characters, imminent danger and/or humour. The fact that it has a strong female character is a winner though. We need more of these.
Not quite sure about that mouse…
If I’m honest I’m not really sure about the mouse – because I’m not that sure what his point is other than to draw Ada into the broken wing of the house where she first realises that the indoor game-keeper is up to no good. (Oh, and to serve up references to Gulliver’s Travels.) I do think the author could have come up with a more appealing and convincing character or trigger event. There were times when I had completely forgotten that he was part of the plot and he kind of made me jump when he suddenly reappeared – a bit like a guest I thought I’d said goodbye to once. Reading about his early exploits also felt a bit off-topic in the scheme of things. Yes, his little book tucked into a pouch at the end of the story is cute, but it felt an unnecessary addition. I’ve seen much better use of mini books within books – this one felt like an afterthought and (okay) a bit self indulgent. This all said, I’m a grown-up – and if the children love the mouse then their vote carries! Certainly don’t let these comments put you off!
Mouse notwithstanding – and putting myself in the shoes of an eight-year-old – I’d still give Goth Girl Five Stars. 🙂 A great read! Available in all good bookshops!