THE LYME BROOK MIST by Anton Corvus
Matador, p/b, £8.19
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Many of us have books that resonate from our younger days. These are ways that they become classics. They are also the kind of story that can spark the desire to write, to create other adventures in the same universe. In some cases, the result can exceed fan fiction, but always these will have other dimensions that take them away from the original and away from copyright problems. There are many interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The device of transporting people, often children, to a magical other world has a long tradition, and it is not surprising that it has been used to a greater or lesser extent by many authors.
In The Lyme Brook Mist, Anton Corvus follows a similar path. Leo Marcus is twelve and lives in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. Just before Christmas 2018, he sets off to meet his friend in the town. There is thick fog, and visibility is very poor. As he crosses the bridge over Lyme Brook, he realises that the tarmac path has changed to cobblestones. At first, he thinks it is something the council has done, but then, looming out of the fog, are two strange creatures – a bull and a bear, both wearing clothes, standing on two legs and talking. He realises that he has somehow crossed over to an alternate reality that calls itself Altcastle. This place seems to be stuck in a pre-Victorian period as there is no technology – not even steam trains. The friendly Bull and Bear take him to Emma, who runs a shop selling boxes and shares her home with Nevermore, a talking, intelligent raven. The town is run by the Countess who has, to Leo, strange rules. If the shops haven’t sold enough in a day, the date doesn’t change; thus it has been Friday 14th December for several days. Emma agrees to try to help Leo get home.
There are interestingly absurd ideas within the book, such as Punch and Judy being living puppets and Mr Toad’s invisible airship, but these lead to distractions from the thrust of the story. This is a place where ‘beakery’ (wrongdoing) is a crime. Almost anything can be beakery, even leaving the toilet seat up. Perpetrators of beakery are referred to as hamsters. Punch is accused of several counts of beakery, and while his trial (three chapters), is amusing it side-lines the narrative, as does the poetry competition (three chapters). The absurdities that Leo encounters are fun, but there are issues with the setup.
In most successful books where the characters find themselves in a different world, it is usually a self-sustaining entity, such as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, or the plethora of books that have access to Fairyland. Even Brigadoon, encapsulated in time, has its boundaries. The alternate reality Leo finds himself in has no such limits. The proposal is that the ‘Alt’ world split off from ours about two hundred years previously before the industrial revolution. Thus he recognises some of the buildings in Altcastle as being the same as Newcastle-under-Lyme, but the more modern ones are missing. The whole world seems to be Alt, not just the immediate neighbourhood. Innovations have taken place in all corners of the globe, and it seems strange that technological developments have not happened elsewhere. Unless Corvus intends to reveal why the whole world went into technological stasis in a future book, this is a big inconsistency.
The other issue is who this book is written for. The original ‘Alice’ books started as an oral tale to entertain. The language style was that of the day (1864). The Lyme Brook Mist has tried to copy that style but as youngsters today want to read a much more free-flowing style, it is hard to see that they would be entertained, especially as children prefer to read about characters a little older than themselves.
While this is a laudable effort, it doesn’t quite work. It is too grounded, and Leo is just that much too erudite to keep the focus of this reader.