Monday, 2 February 2009

Penelope Farmer: Charlotte Sometimes

I've just finished reading Charlotte Sometimes with my son and elder daughter. It's a children's novel in which Charlotte, after her first night in boarding school, wakes up forty years earlier, in 1918. She has swapped places with a girl from the past called Clare, whom we never meet.

The time-switching premise is taken from that masterpiece of children's fiction, Tom's Midnight Garden, to which Farmer's novel is indebted in other ways as well. The first half of Charlotte Sometimes seems thoroughly unmemorable and unoriginal: there are all kinds of japes and scrapes and escapes to do with unwritten homework, Charlotte's and Clare's vastly differing musical and sporting abilities, puzzled schoolfriends, and so on, as the girls swap and swap back every morning.

The novel becomes much darker and more interesting when (disaster!) Charlotte gets stuck in 1918. She and Clare's sister, Emily, are sent off to lodge with the Chisel Browns, a local family who have lost their son in the War. Mr Chisel Brown is a Hun-hater who rages every time that peace is mentioned: 'Damned peace-talk, damned conchies, hun-lovers. Should all be hanged, I say'. On the wall of Charlotte's new bedroom is 'Mark of the German Beast', a pencil drawing of a glowering face: 'But the eyes were gun-holes for shooting at unarmed men; the ears crouched women with murdered babies in their arms; the nose, the mouth, the chin all represented horrors.'

The finest and most terrifying scene in the novel describes a seance organised by the Chisel Browns in the hope of contacting their son. Contact of a sort is made, but nothing comes out quite as hoped, with horribly distressing consequences. Even Armistice Day, starting as a whirligig of celebration, descends into something sinister and unnatural.

Eventually, of course, Charlotte does arrive back in her proper time, although there is no happy ending. The War has become an inescapable legacy: 'What had happened to her would go on mattering, just as what had happened in the war itself would go on mattering, for ever.' The novelist's time-switch technique justifies itself as a means of showing that we are all still living the War and can never be freed from its burden.

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