Kate Saunders, The Land of Neverendings, Faber/Allen & Unwin, Nov 2017, 336pp., $22.99 (hbk), ISBN: 9780571310845
Emily’s older sister Holly has died, and the world around Emily has changed drastically. Her parents are dealing with their own grief and Emily is finding it hard to talk to them without making them sad. Emily’s closest friend has drifted away, uncomfortable with Emily’s loss, just as they’re starting a new high school, leaving Emily feeling very alone.
All of Emily’s sense of grief and change and loss becomes focused on the loss of Bluey, Holly’s favourite toy and the hero of the stories Emily made up for Holly about a place called Smockeroon, where toys live and have adventures. Emily tries to hold on to her memories of Holly by writing down Bluey’s stories in a secret book, and as she writes she finds something very strange happening. Toys start appearing from Smockeroon, and talking to her. Odd things start happening to the people around her, and Emily is not the only one who can see and hear the toys now.
Emily and her new friends begin to realise that while the silliness of Smockeroon is leaking out into this world (look out for the book club meeting!); our world, which the toys call the Hard World, is having an impact on Smockeroon too. Toys are starting to be mean to each other, and a sinister frog has turned up, making everyone uneasy. Emily and her friends have to work out how to fix things and make Smockeroon a safe and innocent place again.
This is not, ultimately, a sad book, although it deals with grief and loss and certainly brought me close to tears a few times. There is an innocence and gentle silliness that made me laugh more. The themes of grief and loss are very finely balanced with the adorable charm of the toy characters that keep crossing over between the worlds.
Emily finds friends, both adults and children her own age, who understand her loss and accept her. Some of them understand because they too have lost loved ones. This book should strike a chord with young and old readers who have felt the loneliness and distance that grief can create. But this story is also about growing up and change, and finding the way to hold onto the joys of childhood and silliness and fun as we face the harder world. It is also about how we remember and treasure the ones we love, even after they’re gone.
Saunders’ writing style has a beautifully classic feel to it that glides smoothly between the childlike charm of Smockeroon and the sharper edges of the real world. The way the characters speak and the real world around them is very definitely of the here and now, but Saunders’ writing would not be out of place in the classics that I read and loved as a child. The obvious connection to draw is with Enid Blyton’s various toy stories. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed the antics of Blyton’s toys. The delightfully anarchic Prison Wendy, or Prizzy, of Smockeroon reminded me a little of Blyton’s Naughty Amelia Jane. This is not to say that Saunders’ writing is derivative, but more that I had the sense that she, too, had read and loved these same stories.
There is a strong link in The Land of Neverendings to classic children’s literature. Kate Saunders references works like Alice in Wonderland, which is the play that Emily’s class is to perform. Emily is given the role of Alice in the play, and like Alice, Emily is drawn into a strange world where imagination is a powerful force, and returns from the journey a stronger and wiser person.
Other classics are mentioned, including the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and there is a deeper link there that readers who know Lewis’ history may spot, and readers who don’t will appreciate when they read the author’s afterword. It’s not a huge stretch, either, to see similarities between the deeper themes of life, death and spirituality in the Chronicles of Narnia and The Land of Neverendings, although these books take those themes in somewhat different directions and use different means to explore them.
This book also sits in the space in my mind where Pixar’s Toy Story and the old story of The Velveteen Rabbit reside. These are the children’s stories of love and loyalty and loss and growing up that have resonated with me both as a child and as an adult, and just as adult viewers of the Toy Story series are going to see and understand different things within the stories to the children who love them too, The Land of Neverendings has something powerful for adult readers as well as younger readers.
This is going to be a difficult book to categorise, because like many of the true, lasting classics, the readers who are going to fall in love with this book and be marked by its story could be anywhere from eight to eighty. I finished the last page with a sense of depths touched and an effervescent joy. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Reviewed by Emily Clarke