Joan Aiken's Armitage family is charming - and magical
By By Ed Park
Jan 25, 2009 | 12:00 AM
The White Queen in Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" says she believes as many as six impossible things before breakfast. In the title tale from Joan Aiken's "The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories" (Big Mouth House: 330 pp., $20), the impossible things happen after breakfast, and the proof of our belief is the pang at the end, when beautifully sustained fantasy crashes into the everyday.
The setup is only mildly outrageous. As Mr. Armitage has locked himself in the larder, his son, Mark, sets out to find suitable breakfast provisions. (Mark's usual accomplice, his sister, Harriet, is out of commission with the measles.) At a decrepit store, Mark purchases a supremely unappetizing Teutonic cereal called Brekkfast Brikks. ("They look like tiny doormats," says Mrs. Armitage.) At least the package is pretty: It bears an elegant garden engraving, scored to be cut and folded into a stand-up scene.
Upon idly singing the promotional doggerel on the wrapper ("Children bang their plates with glee / At Brekkfast Brikks for lunch and tea!"), Mark finds the cutout assuming grand proportions. This cereal garden is, of course, serial, meaning he needs to hunt down five more packages of the long discontinued hardtack, each depicting a different part of the garden, to deepen the scene. The portal to a different reality resembles the one in Norton Juster's "The Phantom Tollbooth"; not to diminish that wonderful book, but Aiken conveys the weirdness of a hidden world -- and wrings maximum poignancy from its possibilities -- in an unhurried 18 pages.
Best known for her novel "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase," Aiken (1924-2004) began writing the Armitage stories as a teenager, and some of them were included in her first book, "All You've Ever Wanted" (1953). She finished the four most recent Armitage stories shortly before her death. Her interest in these characters, then, spanned her career, but the prose never gives in to heaviness. (Of the two dozen stories gathered in "The Serial Garden," only one is longer than 20 pages, and many clock in at 10 pages.) The wit is irrepressible, the invention wild: A baby is transformed into an elephant, which Harriet and Mark then need to stuff into a decommissioned phone booth. (Don't ask -- just read.) Secondary characters do their inimitable turn, then disappear, or get transformed into animals. (Even animals can't escape morphing into other animals: A neighboring sorceress turns Walrus, the Armitage cat, into a wolf.) Such delicious lightness, almost paradoxically, is the fiction's raison d'être.
Though all the pieces are satisfying, there is no blueprint for what an Armitage story has to be. Benevolent ectoplasms materialize in "The Ghostly Governess" and "Tea at Ravensburgh," but whereas the first finds Harriet and Mark figuring out who the poor spirit is and how to put her to rest (a sort of reverse-detective story), the second is a light-footed ramble with a specter who has lived in the house for 300 years. (This ghost, a Mr. Peake, "was thought to be writing his autobiography, though as it was invisible, no one had read it.") "Harriet's Birthday Present" has the shape of a bad dream (a trussed-up Mark listens as a witch carefully reads aloud the cooking instructions). "Rocket Full of Pie" is pure visual comedy, involving baked goods that need to be thrown off a boat and a tightrope-walk across a very long muffler.
Harriet and Mark are resourceful, likable children who are curious about the extraordinary events that seem to visit them on a weekly basis, be it in the form of a unicorn or an encampment of refugee goblins. Their parents, meanwhile, behave in hilariously conventional ways -- Mr. Armitage grumbling about practically everything, Mrs. A. holding fundraisers, albeit for the S.A.D.O.F.L. (Society for the Aid of Distressed Old Fairy Ladies). The incessant collision of the fantastic and the familiar make these stories immediately engaging.
Aiken never bores. She delights in names: Regina Queenscape, Dunk R. Spoggin , Admiral Lecacheur, Mrs. Nutti, P.G. Zero -- not to mention "Armitage" itself. (Aiken was the daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken; her parents divorced, and her mother married the writer Martin Armstrong, whose surname the young Aiken then skewered.) She has fun with place names as well. In "The Serial Garden," Mark reads on the package: "In case of difficulty in obtaining supplies, please write to Fruhstucksgeschirrziegelsteinindustrie (Great Britain), Lily Road, Shepherds Bush."
Antic lists are unleashed -- we don't just get one kind of poison mushroom but "deathcups . . . stinkhorns, false blushers, sickeners, devil's boletus and lurid boletus." (In one story, Mark is so lavishly, if cryptically, insulted by his formidable great-uncle Gavin that he starts transcribing the elaborate billingsgate.)
"The Serial Garden" is my happiest discovery this year. I say this without being influenced in the least by what happens to Mr. Armitage in "The Frozen Cuckoo." As I conclude my hymn of praise, I am certainly not thinking of how, shortly after Mr. Armitage pans A. Whizzard's "shockingly bad book on spells and runes," the incensed author requisitions the Armitage house, then turns him into a bird that later gets trapped in an ice cube.
Park is a founding editor of the Believer and the author of the novel "Personal Days." His "Astral Weeks" column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books
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