Sally Gardner ISBN-10: 1780621493
Many years ago, a strange thing occurred. I was browsing the fiction shelves of a well known, and now defunct, multinational bookstore whilst discussing the reasons books for adults were no longer illustrated (with another person, I’m not entirely mad). One argument was that it was too much trouble for publishers to illustrate books. Another, that adults in order to feel like adults must not read books with pictures in. No luscious illustrations or flowery words for grown-ups. Goodness, no.
And that was when I spotted a thick, bright yellow spine. It stood out amongst the sober blacks, blues and maroons that mark out serious grown-up fiction for serious grown-up people. What’s this? I asked myself. I picked it up and read the title – The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers. Surely it was misplaced. Surely it belonged in the Young Adult section. Surely the faceless/nameless ones who categorise such things had let this one slip or else gone mad. This book was bright and colourful and shiny. It had an anthropomorphised bear on the cover. He had 13 ½ lives for crying out loud.
While I accepted these things as perfectly normal and indications of a rollicking good story, I also recognised, at least back then, that this sort of book was not usually to be found in the (quote-unquote) normal fiction bit. Nevertheless, there it was. I bought it, I read it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. So much so that it remains in my top ten list of favourite books*. Most particularly, I revelled in the illustrations. Wondrous, fanciful stuff that swirled over entire pages or small beasts popping up in a margin. Pictures for grown-ups and no titillation in sight.
This brings me, via a long and not particularly coherent road to Tinder by Sally Gardner. Tinder I found in small independent uni-national, and in fact uni-regional, bookstore in the section for younger readers. Well, it was on a table with a mix of children’s and young adult books so it was difficult to tell where the store was aiming it, but that is by the bye. The point is it was in the area I would have expected to find Captain Bluebear all those many years ago. Tinder however is no happy lark in the rain. It is a dark, foreboding narrative of war, death, rape, torture, violence and love… with pictures by David Roberts (you see how my overlong segue worked?).
Tinder is a beautifully gothic re-imagining of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Tinderbox (which itself was a re-imagining of an older Scandinavian folktale… but I’ve digressed too much already). Those of you who know Anderson’s tales well know they pull no punches (psst, hey Disney fans, the little mermaid dies). In Tinder, Sally Gardner takes the dark side of fairy tales and ramps it up to, maybe not 11 but perhaps a comfortable 9†.
Set during the Thirty Years War, a young soldier, Otto Hundebiss, encounters Death and other fateful strangers. Led on by magical dice he comes to a castle – our witch’s house. Here the Lady of the Nail, as the soldier dubs her, sets him on the quest through three chambers to retrieve her tinderbox. Like the original, the chambers are filled successively with bronze, silver and gold coins but are guarded by wolves rather than dogs, each one larger than the other. And like the original, Otto successfully obtains the sinister tinderbox, defeats the witch and fills his knapsack with gold.
Now a rich man, Otto stays in a town caught in the grip of superstitious fear. Believing they are under attack by werewolves, the frightened townsfolk look to the most obvious of culprits – the stranger in town. Add to all this, the beautiful daughter of the Duke. Kept locked away and hidden from the world – as she is destined to marry a poor soldier (I wonder who that might be‽) – she must be rescued from her impending marriage to an evil prince.
Tinder focuses on the soldier’s tale and Otto’s struggle with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. His nightmares are filled with images of the men he has killed, the horrors he has seen and the slaughter and violation of his own family. It is sometimes difficult to tell when Otto is awake or asleep from the narrative, instead it is the illustration helps us navigate.
It is rare to encounter a wonderfully written and illustrated book for adults and rarer for the story to be so well served by the illustrations. Tinder is both.
*Disclaimer: there is no particular order to this list and it may or may not contain much, much more than ten books.
†On this scale let us say, 1 = a version of Little Red Riding Hood where the wolf has tea with Red and Grandma and the wolf is really a prince and teapots start singing, and let us say 10 = I Spit on Your Grave (1978, not the watered down 2010 version). Well, I’d say Anderson’s The Tinderbox is a 5 for violence, mayhem and kidnapping but in non-detailed fairy tale style. Here you may now deduce your conclusions on the 9 I have awarded to Tinder.