Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill

The Beginning Woods was originally written and published in German (with a title which translates as 'The Forest of Dreaming Stories'), by a Scottish Brit living there. Now, it's being published in English for the first time. This is the sort of cultural mixing worth celebrating about Europe and the EU...

OK, ok, back to the topic at hand. The book, not Brexit.

While it is marketed as a children's novel, The Beginning Woods strikes me as book that grown ups will appreciate more. Reading it on an e-reader, I can't be absolutely sure, but my impression was that this is a fairly thick novel. It's not just the length that might intimidate children - the story starts with two nestled prologues, each of which concerns adult characters. One explains the back story of this world - people have started vanishing and leaving behind only a puddle of clothes, and no one knows why - while the other introduces readers to a scientist and a witch.

Only after those preambles do we meet our protagonist, a kobold baby in a human orphanage, too ugly to be adopted. Except, at the very last minute before he would have been discarded / moved to permanent accommodations (apparently, orphanages are sort of showrooms for children - those no one wants are taken elsewhere. Who knew?), a one-armed man and his wife adopt him after all. They call him Max.

Max grows up, and over several chapters we follow him during his childhood. Eventually, he reaches an age where he starts to resent his parents (who had been nothing but loving), predominantly for being different from him and not wanting him to be a complete bookworm. Then, books are banned as a scientist claims they are to blame for the vanishings, and events rapidly take turns for the dramatic.

The Woods, which are mentioned in the prologue, only begin to enter the narrative when Max crosses from the real world into theirs, in search of his origins. Once in the woods, Max meets Marta, a cold girl, and the story gains a lot of heart, soul and joy. It becomes playful where it had been sullen and sulky.

The English blurb reads like a movie trailer. The German blurb, meanwhile, calls the book a dark fairytale with philosophical depth, perfect for fans of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Michael Ende. It's pretty clear in both cases that publishers and editors saw a treasure in this book. They are not wrong.

There is indeed a lot to love about the novel. Once Max is having adventures in the Woods, the story is alive and wonderful. However, it takes a long time before the novel reaches that point. Comparisons with The Neverending Story and The Shadow of the Wind are well deserved: the book is indeed rich and deep. Like the Neverending Story, the transition between worlds happens almost halfway through the tale. However, unlike the Neverending Story, the joyful, pacey half comes second. The Neverending Story hooks you from the start, while The Beginning Woods hook you in the latter half of the tale. With a somewhat plodding pace (similar to Shadow of the Wind's), the first half might lose readers' attentions.

I don't really think this is a children's novel. No, there is no inappropriate language, gore or sex. However, children't novels rarely follow characters as they grow from babies to teenagers. Usually, children's books take place at a specific age of their protagonist's life. Similarly, children's novels tend to start with children, not with prologue after prologue about adults. Most importantly of all, children's novels don't usually allow themselves any slack in their pace. It takes patience to stick with this book. Much as that patience is rewarded by the richness and depth of the fantasy woods, I fear child readers are unlikely to persevere (and I'm not entirely sure about adult readers, either).

The Beginning Woods is indeed a magical, beautiful book. It's much better than Shadow of the Wind (in my opinion), but not as accessible to young readers as The Neverending Story. Recommended for grown ups who love stories, books, and stories about stories.

Rating: 4/5

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