Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Log: Griffin's Castle by Jenny Nimmo

I first read Griffin's Castle in primary school for the Battle of the Books competition. It was an awesome source of good new titles and I read loads of books from those reading lists for years after I was eligible to enter. When I found my only slightly battered copy in a second hand bookshop for less than the price of a chocolate bar, I -- well, I would've jumped at the opportunity, but by the time I left that shop I was carrying too many books to make that wise.

Griffin's Castle is a bleaker story than I remembered. Dinah Jones is a tall, serious eleven-year-old who is very nearly both unloved and unwanted. Her young, single mother hopes she isn't a genius or something similarly horrid. Things might've been looking up when Dinah and her mother move into a proper house for the first time ever. But the house is falling apart and the landlord, Dinah's stepfather-to-be, perhaps, can't stand the strange girl, so unlike her mother, who hangs a handmade "Griffin's Castle" sign on the gate after finding a stone griffin in the garden and wants to visit his elderly mother.

That's what's so awfully attractive about Dinah. One could understand if she were sullen and sorry for herself, but instead she's fiercely independent. She papers her dingy attic room with cut out pictures and poetry. If she refuses to be friends with the children at school, she pushes them into friendship with each other. And then there's a little bit of magic that makes Dinah's independence scarily concrete. I think her not-quite-a-friend Jacob puts it best. [Fair warning: this might be very mildly spoilerish.]

"Dinah Jones is different. She's seen things, been in places that are horrible. But she'll never, never tell. They've got right into her, like, right deep into her and she can't get away. And the animals are the same. They can't talk about what it's like to be hunted and chained and to have your claws and teeth pulled out, or to starve very slowly. So she's invited them into her garden, where they'll be safe together. Safety in numbers. But Griffin's Castle is falling down. And supposing all the animals come. Maybe she'll never get out again. [. . .] Perhaps a desperate person, like Dinah, can make things happen. Things that could never normally happen, in real life, I mean. D'you think that's possible?"

At first Dinah welcomes the fantastical animals. She doesn't want to leave Griffin's Castle, which is, she persists in believing, going to be a beautiful family home. But soon she finds she can't escape them - she very nearly dies trying. I don't think words like "depression" or "suicide" ever occured to me when I read the book about ten years ago, but they do now. I think I'm glad; the animals were freaky enough then as it was, but seeing more of the symbolism now makes the book well worth rereading.

Dinah can't escape the animals on her own, but fortunately, in the end, she doesn't have to. And then she cries. Which, oddly enough, might be the happiest moment in the book.

I said at the beginning that the book was bleak, but I didn't find it depressing. It's a story about light in darkness, not about darkness. About a spark that, just as it seems about to be snuffed out, is kindled into flame. I expected to enjoy it and it surpassed my expectations.

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