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Monday, 7 June 2010

The Moonstone Legacy

 The Moonstone Legacy

What will be the next adventure of the Moonstone? Who can tell?” — Wilkie Collins

Those are the last two sentences of The Moonstone, regarded by many as the first detective novel. The basic plot is as follows:

Rachel Verinder, a young Englishwoman, inherits a large Indian diamond on her eighteenth birthday. It is a legacy from her uncle, a corrupt English army officer who served in India. The diamond is of great religious significance as well as being extremely valuable, and three Hindu priests have dedicated their lives to recovering it.

Rachel's eighteenth birthday is celebrated with a large party, whose guests include her cousin Franklin Blake. She wears the Moonstone on her dress that evening for all to see, including some Indian jugglers who have called at the house. Later that night, the diamond is stolen from Rachel's bedroom, and a period of turmoil, unhappiness, misunderstandings and ill luck ensues. Told by a series of narratives from some of the main characters, the complex plot traces the subsequent efforts to explain the theft, identify the thief, trace the stone and recover it.

The Moonstone gained its name from its association with the Hindu god of the moon. Originally set in the forehead of a sacred statue of the god at Somnath it was said to be protected by hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu, and to wax and wane in brilliance along with the light of the moon.

None of which you need to know to read and enjoy The Moonstone Legacy. What little one does need to know about the significance of the jewel and the consequences of its being removed from its setting are explained in the text.

What you do need to be is a fourteen-year-old girl. Or thereabouts.

The Moonstone Legacy is the first book published by Pushkin Press that is being marketed for young adults. The definition of Young Adult is a notoriously difficult one to pin down but anywhere between fourteen and twenty-one seems to be about right although I’ve seen that stretched to from twelve to twenty-five. The press release pitches the book at ten upwards. Melissa Ulfane, of Pushkin Press, when asked why they’d chosen this book as their first YA title had this to say:

It’s the book itself rather than the genre although I think young adult fiction is more authentic and less pretentious. The story is also thrilling and informative with varied settings — Yorkshire, India …. Bollywood. — Interview with Pushkin Press on the release of its first young adult title, Lizzy’s Literary Life

I was curious why, when the original Moonstone was a novel written for adults the authors had chosen to target young adults in their sequel. I got this reply from Tony Wild:

I started writing a children's book based on an idea I'd developed while telling bedtime stories. I wrote a few chapters that featured a character from the past called George Abercrombie who worked in India for its British rulers. I showed them to Diana [de Gunzburg] (my collaboratrice on many projects, but not writing, before this...) and she felt I was really missing a trick by not involving contemporary India in the tale, and making it more grown up. I was trawling my bookshelves for inspiration when my eye fell on the original Moonstone. I've always loved the last chapter, and was reading it for pure pleasure when suddenly the last line screamed out at me —What will be the next adventure of the Moonstone? Who can tell? A few minutes frantic googling established that nobody had ever written a sequel, then I was on the phone to Diana and before we knew it we were plotting away...

It doesn’t really answer the question but the fact is that once you start reading the book it’s very clear from the use of language and the short chapters (five or six pages generally) that they are not trying to get adults interested in this tale. Which is just as well because I can’t see many grownups getting much out of this. And in that respect I’m probably not the best person to review this book because I can’t remember much about being fourteen other than the fact I didn’t feel fourteen and I found most of my contemporaries immature. What I have noted over the years is a shift. Children mature quicker these days: physically, mentally, emotionally. There is a drive on to stop being a child as quickly as possible and at fourteen I’d expect most kids to be pushing the boundaries. I couldn’t write a fourteen-year-old character, girl or boy, and hope to make them realistic by today’s standards. Setting them in the mid-1970s would be a different matter. Sure I’ve enough sense to realise contemporary teenagers all use mobile phones and are Internet savvy but I don't think dressing up my 1970s teenager in 2010s clothes would cut it in a contemporary tale.

This book is not aiming for kitchen sick realism though. It is an adventure and a mystery. It draws on standard plots and stock characters and once you’ve started seeing the-secret-island connections it’s hard to stop. Lizzy Abercrombie is the poor relation. She is Cinderella, she is Harry Potter, she is any one of the Arnold children in Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island. Her mother, Alice, is dead, the result of an unfortunate event, and she lives alone with her father:

Her father, who was a scientist, rented the lodge from his elder brother, but he and Aunt Lavinia were usually far too busy hosting fancy shoots, dinners and weekend parties at Shalimar to take much notice of them.

Just type “lives alone with her father” into Google and see how many young adult and children’s books appear on the list. Here’s four I found within five minutes: Lighthouse Girl by Dianne Wolfer, The English Roses by Madonna, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke and Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks. On Skerricks blog there’s a list of 25 modern clichés in young adult fiction and #12 is ‘A dead mother’.

Lizzy’s dad is a twin. Amazing the difference being just five minutes late can have on your entire life. One boy is born at 5:23 and the next at 5:28 and their fates are sealed. Fate is an odd thing though and nowhere near as predictable as people think it is. Take Esau and Jacob, for example, Esau was the eldest and yet it was Jacob their father ended up blessing. Things can change. But there are a couple of hundred pages to go before we have to worry about that.

In the meantime Lizzy overhears a conversation between her father, Henry, and his brother, William:

“...if I were you, Henry, I’d be worried sick about Lizzy,” he said. She stopped in her tracks, listening intently, “I don't know how you’ve coped, I really don’t. After Alice’s death, I hardly slept I can tell you. All I could think was that it could be my kids next...”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, William,” Lizzy heard her father reply. “You can’t honestly expect me to still believe that ridiculous curse story Nanny used to frighten us with?”

What the hell’s he talking about? Lizzy tiptoed down the narrow hallway and stood stock-still near the half-open door.

“Come on, Henry!” Uncle William said. “You know full well that ever since that no-good George Abercrombie disappeared off the face of the earth, one in every generation of the family has died in some sort of terrible accident. And when did they all die?

Her father didn’t reply. Lizzy could sense the tension between them.

“On the full moon!” Uncle William said. “And unfortunately your wife was no exception. Is it any wonder they say that the Abercrombie family is cursed?”

Okay, enough exposition. It’s hard providing readers with critical background information in a believable way and writers are limited in the ways they can do this. The overhead conversation is a classic:

Of course people do overhear things to their advantages. If it’s not overdone it can be a useful plot device. But it falls under the general heading of Coincidences.

“That’s an amazing coincidence,” Lizzy said as they walked down the drive. “Shankar knowing about Uncle George and all that ...”

“Yeah,” Ravi said, “It’s funny – Shankar once told me that you can’t afford to put as many coincidences in stories as there are in real life ‘cos no one will believe you ...”

The authors of this novel are clearly aware that too many fortunate happenstances can become annoying. And yet there are a lot in this book: Lizzy lives in the grounds of a mansion designed after the Indian fashion by her great-great-great-grandfather, known as Uncle George; the current owner being her uncle William who, as a child, shared a nanny with his brother; the nanny was called Mabel Corker and happens to be a friend of the aunt of Rose Franklin, Lizzy’s art teacher (who happens to have a thing for Shakespearian sonnets and Lizzy’s dad); Rose gives Lizzy a copy of a book called The Lifeline, the film adaptation of which is being directed by the father of Ravi, the good-looking boy she befriends at the boarding school she’s despatched to by her (possibly wicked) Uncle William after he catches her and her friend Josh (whose father happens to work as a groom on his estate) spying on him visiting Mabel, whose name William told his brother he couldn’t even remember, all of which leaves Rose free to make a move on her dad while Lizzy is away at school. Ravi, who everyone wants to be friends with because of his celebrity father, invites Lizzy to go with him to India where the book is being filmed (which her father allows because he’s got other things on his mind) where she meets the author of The Lifeline, Sankar Pujari, who it transpires is writing a book about her great-great-great-grandfather. While out riding there with Ravi they conveniently end up being scared by a lion into getting lost, but don’t worry because they end up in a cave where they meet an old (conveniently) English-speaking Sufi:

Lizzy ... explained how she and Ravi came to be in the cave. It was great relief to find someone who could help them. The old man nodded sagely. “A most fortunate occurrence. These caves are little known, yet you have happened on them by chance.

goraka1 The Sufi, a sannyasin, a holy man who lives as a hermit, takes them to meet his friend the local Raja who just happens to have to hand a copy of George Abercrombie’s journal which he happily parts with there and then. Once the spidery handwriting is transcribed (although why no one thought to attempt this beforehand your guess is as good as mine) the manuscript provides most of the missing pieces to the puzzle and it’s there we finally learn what the Moonstone has to do with all of this. Everyone is very nice and helpful and has far more time for the girl than you might expect, even the bad guy, although we don't know who the bad guy is yet or what his motives are, other than to get his hands on the Moonstone for his own nefarious ends. Oh, and during the filming of The Lifeline, the girl who does the riding scenes has a well-timed (and opportune) tumble and so Lizzy gets to appear in the film much to the chagrin of her (possibly not evil but exceptionally self-centred and bitchy) cousins, the two Sams, Samuel and Samantha, who take the ‘ugly sisters’ role in this book and play it to perfection, their mother, Lizzy’s Aunt Levinia, aptly cast as the wicked stepmother. Where the mysterious, and soft-spoken mystic, Uncle Peregrine, factors into all of this I’m not saying.

All very tidy and everything is tied up neatly if not in time for tea certainly by the end of the book.

This does not mean that this is a bad book. It is full of archetypes and clichés, it is a routine adventure, its characters lack depth and its plotlines show through and yet I nevertheless found it immensely readable, albeit an undemanding read. I finished it in two days and I can’t pretend I wasn’t interested in seeing how they pulled everything together because I was in exactly the same way I’m always curious how Miss Marple or Poirot are going to solve their by-the-numbers mysteries, even the ones I’ve seen before.

For someone who knows nothing of British colonialism there is enough history in this book to help you make sense of the connections without burdening a young reader with too much data. The same goes for its explanations of Indian terms, brief and to the point. I wasn’t convinced by the fact that everyone and their aunt seemed to know who Sankar Pujari was and was desperate to meet him. Not based on a single work. I think even J K Rowling was onto her third or fourth book before people started to sit up and pay attention. But it’s a work of fiction so let’s not get petty. It’s also not aimed at adults and so one would expect a certain streamlining. That’s where older readers will start to feel the book lacks. There are no rough edges.

Chapter 1, ‘Death by Moonlight’, opens with:

Blood dripped from Lizzy’s hands into the snow. Her mother’s blood.

“Mum!” she cried, pleading, clutching her body close, willing her not to die.

“Lizzy!” her mother whispered. Her eyes wide open in terror, gazing at something...

Lizzy turned.

But there was nothing. Just the glimmering dome of Shalimar, the frozen moors beyond and hanging in the ice-clear sky, the full moon.

That’s the entire first chapter by the way, short, sharp, to the point, if a little theatrical. That’s also the most graphic scene in the book, by the way.

It’s not a didactic book — there’s no neat moral at the end — it’s primarily written as entertainment. There is food for thought. The bad guys are shown to have reasons for their actions and the good guys don’t always make the best decisions but other than that things are pretty clear-cut. I just found Lizzy too levelheaded and downright British when it came to her feelings. She’d held her dying mother in her arms. The girl should be an emotional wreck: depressed, anorexic, suicidal or something, she should be looking for love in all the wrong places, but I didn’t see any of that. There is never any real sense that the curse is going to get her before she can solve the mystery. I would have liked to have seen her swithering about ending her life and not knowing if this was a reaction to her grief of the effects of the curse. Reading in between the lines it looks like Josh has a bit of a crush on her but she shows no interest in boys or men. She gets (conveniently) rescued by a handsome man in an Indian railway station — forgot to mention that earlier — and whisked off on his motorbike and you’re telling me with her arms wrapped around him she never had one dodgy thought? Hmm. Perhaps the authors think that after a trauma like that the girl would Boy's Own be emotionally stunted. I don’t think they gave it too much thought and were thinking more about a Boy’s Own adventure only with a girl as the hero since it’s the 21st century.

But like I say, I’m not a fourteen-year-old girl. So I asked a fourteen-year-old girl (well, she’s nearly fourteen), my wife’s granddaughter. She thought the plot sounded “very interesting”, the video looked “cool and it explained a lot without being boring” and she was “definitely interested in reading” it. So I’ll pass on my review copy and see what she thinks of the whole book once she’s read it.

What I can’t decide on is whether as a kid I would have picked this up. Even as young as ten I think I have to say that it’s unlikely. Had I been made to read it at school I also suspect I would have enjoyed it once I’d read it but that’s often been the case. I groaned when I heard we were going to do Romeo and Juliet but once I got into it and realised how much more there is to it than the balcony scene I quite enjoyed it. So, you never know. At ten though I was more interested in Dr Who and The Fantastic Four.

The Moonstone Legacy will be available in bookstores from July 2010.

This is the seventh in a series of reviews and interviews to promote this book. Here is the full list and the dates:

And here is the video of the book:


de Gunzburg Diana de Gunzburg was born in Pakistan and is Anglo-Russian-Afghan. Her great-grandfather was the last man to be publically hanged in British India for making war on the Crown. Diana was brought up between the North West Frontier — where her father still farms his estate — and her mother's native Yorkshire. By the age of seventeen she had already made the 6000-mile journey overland between the two countries three times. She has recently published articles about her family history in Alef magazine and Afghan Scene. She lives with her husband and teenage daughter in Paris where she teaches yoga. This is her first book.

TonyWild Tony Wild is a scion of the Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate dynasty, makers of Yorkshire Tea. He was a director of the company but gave up to write full time. He has always been fascinated by the relationship between the British and India and explored the subcontinent as a young man. He wrote two popular histories published by Harper Collins — The East India Company: Trade and Conquest from 1600 and Remains of the Raj, which Jan Morris nominated as her book of the year. He is a former actor, filmmaker and screenwriter and this is his first novel.


Rachel Fenton said...

I was so excited when I saw your post heading: the Moonstone is one of my favourite books. I would love to write a sequel to it, too...but then, I must be honest, I felt rather deflated that it was YA fiction. However, and it's a big however, I think it's a brilliant way to get new readers (outside of university and further/higher edu depts) interested in one of the greatest books written in English!

I take it there's no opiate abuse in the sequel ;)

Dave King said...

I get the impression from your review that it would be YA women (girls?) who would be most keen on this story. I can see them taking to it in a big way, but I'm not sure the lads would. Oh dear, am I being sexist, now?

Jim Murdoch said...

No, Rachel, there’s no drug abuse in the sequel. When I wrote to Tony that was in the back of my mind when I learned that it was going to be a YA title; the original certainly was not. One thing I didn’t mention in the review, because I only discovered it afterwards, is that this is only the first of a proposed trilogy of books.

And, Dave, I did try and not be sexist in my review but I cannot honestly see a teenage boy – or even a ten-year-old boy – thanking you for this book. Much of the problem is the cover which is uninspiring. The actual story is fine and less girly than you might imagine and I honestly did get into it much to my great surprise. It’s main problem as I pointed out was that it is formulaic but let’s face it most kids will be well used to formulaic TV and probably not notice any of the things I did.

Art Durkee said...

I actually read a fair bit of YA fiction, by certain authors I've come to like and respect. Most notably Gary Paulsen and Diane Duane. I suppose Rowling is YA fiction, too, but in some ways has transcended all that; my adult friends have been just as huge fans of Harry Potter as any kids I know.

Would I have picked this one up to read? Probably not. The attraction for me would have been the India connection, but a brief skim would have told me if I wanted to get into the novel.

There are several very good YA writers who do fully-fledged characters, complex real-life plots and situations, and deal well with the feelings and difficulties of people of that age. Just as with any other "genre" of writing, I go for the quality writers; this book, from your description, doesn't sound very fleshed-out or deep.

Jim Murdoch said...

The reason I picked J K Rowling, Art, was because she is clearly someone who people read despite the fact that she does fall back on some clichéd ways of solving her problems but then there are only so many ways to provide your protagonists with the information they need. So I wasn’t so much picking on her as a bad storyteller but saying that even the “best” have their limits.

As I said in my review, The Moonstone Legacy is a perfectly readable novel and I genuinely got caught up in the story. It was fine as a change, lightweight and undemanding, but I wouldn’t like to have to read books like that on a regular basis. If I did then I think I might become a harsher critic.

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