THEN: By far the most obscure book on my re-reads list, I happened to remember it thanks to a single moment in it that snagged at me when I was drawing up the list of childhood books. This one came from the local library, in hardback large print. If you’d asked me, I’d say the cover featured an ethereal, translucent blue bottle, but my recent googling can unearth no such cover on record. The story was set during the Victorian era, I recall, though a moment’s inspection of this memory reveals it to be false, as I also recall the characters driving a Land Rover.
The story involves a boy escaping from captivity and ending up digging up old bottles from makeshift mines in a country house. What stuck with me was a moment when Mouse, the main character (though I couldn’t remember his name) is betrayed by a boy called Ralph (whose name I remember perfectly) and returned to his original captives. Realising the error of his ways, Ralph returns to rescue him, and there is a moment when they lock eyes across the street and Ralph raises a hand, and the two understand that all is forgiven without exchanging words.
I remember this being a powerful moment; perhaps it stood out in a sea of Blytons and Hardy Boys that made everything Loud Screaming Text, and it was unique to run across something with a little more subtext and subtlety. Of course, with distance, it has as much subtlety as your garden variety soap opera, but I was eight–what do you expect?
NOW: So, this book is average. Not rubbish, or even badly written. Just average. I had certainly misremembered the setting, but that might have had something to do with the book’s obvious co-opting of Fagin from Oliver Twist into a 21st century setting. Reading it whilst young, I remember the feeling of intrigue and oddity about the bottle-collecting, as if it was a world one step into fantasy that resided in the hinterlands of the real world. Re-reading it now, it is pedestrian and illogical, and utterly lacking in magic.
As for the moment in which Ralph simply raises his hand, and no words are spoken: this time around, it was devoid of power. Twenty years of reading have taught me every plot mechanic meant he was always going to come back. There was no other way for the story to go, and its predictability robs it of emotional depth. Not to mention that the unspoken subtext I remember is actually, sadly, still text; the book spells out everyone’s feelings in big messy sentences.
But thank the lord it wasn’t three kids and a dog solving crimes.