Friday 28 January 2011

Follow Me Down, Julie Hearn

When Tom's mother is recovering from breast cancer, she takes him to London to visit his grandmother. While upstairs, Tom is aware of the tension as his mum and gran try to repair a long-damaged relationship, he finds himself called downstairs by the voices only he can hear. In the basement is a gap, which takes him back in time, when the house was home to the "freaks" and "monsters" of the Bartholomew Fair: Astra, the tiny "Changeling Child," Angel, the "Gorilla Woman," Malachi Twist the "Bendy Man" and others.

Follow Me Down is a very evocative novel, well-written and poetic, but in such a way that brings to life the murkiness of 18th century London. From the very beginning, when Tom's mother is driving around, looking for the old house, there is a sense of something not being right, in the description of the stink of Smithfield Meat Market on a hot day, while Tom's mother who "could recognise anything from gas to a bunch of flowers through several closed doors," can't smell anything. The Black Raven, the pub next door to Tom's gran is adorned with an "evil-looking bird" on its sign which appears to swing without any wind. When Tom gets taken through "the gap" back in time, we find ourselves in a dark underworld, seen through the eyes of the outsiders in the freak shows, with menacing villains in the "freaks'" masters and the grave robbers who would go to any lengths to procure bodies for experimentation. This is the nasty side of historical London. But the menace is not restricted to the past. In the present day, Tom's gran's house is haunted by the spectres of what isn't spoken. There is Tom's mum's illness, his gran's implied alcoholism and the mystery of his dead grandfather looming over like a shadowy figure that can't be seen, but neither can he be ignored.

Read as part of the Support Your
Local Library challenge
One theme I found interesting was that of memory. First of all we see Tom remembering how, as a toddler, he was fascinated by the railings outside his gran's house, "tall and sharp as spears. He had wanted one to play knights of old with; hadn't understood that you couldn't just pull one up and put it back after slaying a few imaginary dragons." But when he arrives, the railings don't fit his memory, being somewhat dulled and tarnished either by the passing years or by his growing up. When he gets into the basement and sees the gap, Tom suddenly remembers it from before, when he was just two years old. You'd think that a magical experience such as being pulled into the past would not be forgotten, but when you're two, perhaps you haven't yet worked out what the rules of the world are, and what is an unusual experience, what's just matter-of-fact. It means that when Tom is pulled into the seventeenth century, no time is wasted in telling us about him working out what's going on, but instead we are plunged straight into the story.

If you enjoyed this book, you may like

Tom's Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce
Celandine, Steve Augarde

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
The Company of Liars, Karen Maitland

Follow Me Down is published in the USA as The Sign of the Raven.

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