The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

img_2801Oh, will fictional parents never learn? Leaving your children behind in the charge of a new governess while you journey abroad almost never ends well. In the case of Willoughby (‘isn’t he the richest man in five counties?’ someone asks, not so innocently) it could cost him his life and his estate. You’d have thought a bit of due diligence would have been called for. His only daughter Bonnie, and his orphaned niece Sylvia, are now at the mercy of the brilliantly-named Miss Slighcarp. But the plot is far from the most interesting thing about The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. A note at the beginning tells us that the story is set ‘in a period of English history that never happened’, at the time of the accession of King James III in 1832. But the monarch does not impinge upon the story: in other words, Joan Aiken has created an alternative history, even though her book doesn’t really demand it – that is the mark of someone who knows how to enjoy themselves. There’s more: the Channel Tunnel has just been built, and packs of wolves have used it to escape bitter winters in Russia and eastern Europe. The wolves are useful to Aiken. They are everywhere in the snowbound English countryside, pervading most of the conversations at the start of the book. And they turn what would otherwise be quite a workaday tale – parents leave child, child has to fend for herself against evil adults – into something remarkable: there is an underlying dread here. The scene where a wolf bursts through a train window and is stabbed to death with some broken glass does not really belong in a children’s novel. In fact – strange though it may be for a comfy classic – it is more like a zombie movie: humans gathered together, going about their business as normally as possible while carrying guns and aware that, somewhere in the darkness, bloodthirsty beasts are waiting…out there. To be honest, Aiken can’t keep this up, and the bucolic, summery second half is a limp by comparison. But still, as the temperature drops and dark dominates light, this is the sort of novel you want by your fireside.

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