Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Nargun and the Stars

Patricia Wrightson The Nargun and the Stars (1970)
Back in the 1970s when I was a kid, Australia was England's closest neighbour - closer than France, closer than even Wales - and so I grew up enjoying the many benefits of Australian culture. I have a vague memory of some huge antipodean anniversarial celebration which would presumably account for that year when you couldn't turn the telly on without seeing either Dame Edna or Norman Gunston, and even the BBC's Jackanory - a fifteen minute daily broadcast of a book read by somebody vaguely famous - joined in with its recital of Patricia Wrightson's The Nargun and the Stars, an Australian children's classic. Weirdly I can find no reference to this hypothetical anniversary year through Google, so perhaps I imagined it and all that Australian culture was actually filtered across from the neighbouring farm, seeing as they had family somewhere down there. Frustratingly, internet memories of The Nargun and the Stars as featured on Jackanory are similarly scant beyond a handful of accounts in which people in their fifties recall it having scared the living shit out of them.

I can still see why, although I'm reading this as an adult. It's a children's book with the usual, logical concessions, placing its young protagonist at the centre of the action and not obliging him to think too hard about anything too utilitarian like how the hell his uncle manages to make a living out on that farm in the middle of the outback; but it's a children's book which nevertheless assumes its reader to be in possession of both a brain and an attention span longer than that of a kitten, so I didn't find it necessary to get in character by dressing up as a schoolboy or eating instant mashed potato drowned in ketchup or anything.

The Nargun and the Stars is experienced through the eyes of the recently orphaned Simon as he is shipped off to live with rural relatives and encounters a surreal panoply of native Australian elementals presumably from Aboriginal lore - tree spirits, the aquatic Potkoorok, and the terrifying Nargun of the title, essentially a living and very much disgruntled boulder. The Nargun has been, so it seems, displaced from its homeland by the march of progress, and now rolls around the hills of Wongadilla, crushing sheep and farm machinery in the dead of night.

Oddly, not very much actually happens in this novel. Events unfold at a leisurely rural pace with breaks for tea every five or so pages, and yet the low incident narrative never drags, being borne along by its wonderful attention to quiet detail - One of very few books that successfully depicts silence, as one Goodreads reviewer puts it. Truthfully, the book doesn't really need to jump through narrative hoops because atmosphere alone does most of the business. This seems to work well as a means of dealing with Simon having recently lost his parents without needing to spell anything out - a canny choice, I would argue, given that spelling things out to children regarding such a ruthlessly subjective experience as losing one's parents is probably asking for trouble, and a road ultimately leading to books with titles like My Dad, the Sex Criminal.

More interesting still is that our Nargun isn't really evil so much as simply misplaced, which in turn serves as a faint echo of the Nargun being only the latest intrusion on the landscape, the previous one having been made by Simon's new family on the realm of the Potkoorok and the rest. This could have resulted in sermonising but instead Wrightson takes a more philosophical tone on the subject of change, impermanence, and so on - all of which is of obvious relevance to Simon's unfortunate situation.

The Nargun and the Stars is a quietly intelligent children's book and as such richly deserves to be remembered as a first division classic alongside the works of Lewis Carroll, Tove Jansson, Roald Dahl and others.

1 comment:

  1. Hey I'm one of those 50 somethings that remembers that Jackanory series, I don't recall being frightened by it particularly, but as a fan of Alan Garner and books like The Giant under the snow, I found myself completely captivated by it and it is one of my fondest memories of Jackanory. Such a pity Wrightson is not so well known, I agree with you that she deserves to be rated more highly, much of her work is really hard to get hold of.