Monday, 22 August 2011

Book of the week: The Borrowers

Last week I went to see the new Japanese animation, Arrietty, based on an old favourite, Mary Norton's The Borrowers. I work from home these days, but I happened to be in the office for a moment so I took home my battered copy and re-read it. This is the cover of my edition:

I bought it in Russia, sometime in the late '70s, for a royal sum of 5 roubles. I am not ironic: it was 5% of my salary. Would you pay 5% of your salary for a used paperback? The reason I bought the book was twofold. I had read about it in Margery Fisher's Intent Upon Reading, the major source of information about British children's literature available in the Moscow Foreign Literature Library. I had also seen it at the exhibition of children's books organised by the British Council in 1975, the catalogue of which became the source of all information about British children's literature for many years coming. But actually - who needs a reason for buying a book! I had a special interest in The Borrowers because I was writing an article about fantasy which eventually, in my next life, became my PhD. Miniature people was among many aspects I considered. There is a very interesting Russian classic about miniature people, but the charm of The Borrowers is their subtle interaction with the world of human beans which is the plot engine, the comedy and the tragedy.

As usual when you re-read a book that you think you remember well, there are many details I had forgotten, and many details are different from the film. The standard interpretation is Arrietty's coming of age, and watching the movie with a 15-year-old I couldn't help wondering how much of that she recognised. As a parent with an empty nest, I recognise the parents' separation anxiety.

I also remembered the metafictional aspect, the story within a story, and the eternal question: did it really happen. Even when I read it first, long before I knew the word metafiction, I enjoyed this playfulness and mystery. The Russian midget story was nothing as sophisticated.

As I remembered, this book was about the impossible love, because the boy can never shrink to Arrietty's size and she cannot grow to his. There is a short story by Astrid Lindgren in which there is a magical word which allows the protagonist to shrink. It makes it all much easier. And although I have read the sequels, Arrietty's and the boy's farewell is irreversible. (Books like this shouldn't have sequels, but that's another matter).

What has always fascinated me about the borrowers was all the intricate ways they used the borrowed objects. And suddenly it filled with new significance. I am a borrower! That's exactly what I do when I make my dollhouses. In the book, there are both minute descriptions and illustrations. I must now put it on the shelf together with all my other dollhouse-maker books.


Tina Hanlon said...

I loved the Borrowers when I was a child. It probably appealed to us because we hoped we wouldn't get caught by our full-size parents when we did things around the house in secret. This theme of putting different things to practical use is a big part of the attraction of _Robinson Crusoe_ too, in a quite different context.

Amy B-Z said...

Aw, I had the very same cover! Thanks for this post. I'm remembering hours of lying on the floor imagining how everything in our house would look to a Borrower. And I remember feeling a terrible sadness at the end -- and wondering if Borrowers might be real. Looking forward to rereading the book now!

Maria Nikolajeva said...

Just to clarify: I didn't read this book as child, but I know I would have loved it.

Mr Pond said...

Lovely post, Maria. I'm a Studio Ghibli junkie, and am studying children's literature, so I'm really rather excited about this film! Interestingly, I've heard a story--which I can verify if you wish--that Miyazaki hadn't read the book since childhood, but got excited about the story and wrote the script based on his memory of reading it. So that makes it potentially an interesting study in reception and translation between mediums.

I think the books were made into a mini-series in the 80s, after the manner of BBC mini-series in the 80s, although it thankfully starred Ian Holm as Pod.

Saying that, and doing a quick IMDb search, I discover that another TV series is due out this year or next, with Christopher Eccleston as Pod and Stephen Fry doing something. This just keeps getting better...

My favorite moment of inversion in the book is the moment when the boy breaks into the house, and Homily--after her initial fright--scolds him for making a mess, because "he was, after all, only a little boy."