Then: I remember buying this from the visiting book fair that came to our school once a year. The book fair always promised much, and I was always excited for its arrival, and disappointed when it rolled around, as it was three cases of reading-age-divided cases containing a handful of books I’d nearly always already read. I don’t know what made me pick this book, because at the age I read this – around about eight or nine, I think – I was almost exclusively reading detective stories. I suspect there may have been some heavy promotion behind the book, or perhaps it was that I remembered the author from The Demon Headmaster.
I read the book many times over. It was unlike anything I’d ever read: wild, savage and mysterious. It never quite told me what was happening, but I understood its strangeness all the same, and when it reached its conclusion I was gripped with terror. Even if I couldn’t remember much else, there’s a chilling aside in the final chapter that, eighteen years later, I could quote without thinking — their skulls are fragile — and vividly picture the image of a cricket bat coming down as he bends to protect… well, I’m not going to say what. Read the book.
Now: Mother of god, did this book stand up to my memory. It is exactly as I remember, if not better, because this time around I found a whole raft of new things to appreciate. The wildness, and the shot of strangeness that ran throughout it is intact, but I was also thrilled by the sympathetic and realistic depiction of all the characters: Charlie, the Luttrell family, his own family, and his cousin Zoe who becomes the chief antagonist. It’s rare that a bully character is written with that level of insight, and the descent into violence at the end is palpable and believable.
There were new things I loved: the depiction of the library as the place of escape; the presentation of the flawed adults dealing with things beyond their children’s worlds; the wild and beautiful hinterland of nature colliding with a city; Charlie’s discovery of a passion for art and photography; and, the nature of Charlie and Jennifer’s relationship (a friendship, essentially asexual; I’d be reaching if I said there was a queer subtext to the book, but I’m a fan of the YA stories that don’t push the male lead to have a romantic interest in any of the female characters. The blank space leaves space for everyone, not just a heterosexual male reader.)
Of my entire re-read project, this has been the finest to return to. It was very nearly not part of the project, as the title only occurred to me at the eleventh hour; I promptly ousted another book from the list to make way for it. Pictures In The Dark is wonderful, and I cannot recommend it enough.