Island of the Aunts
By Eva Ibbotson
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
The notion of slipping off to a different world, whether through a portal, on a ship, or via some other vehicle, whether by means of magic, of destiny, or of abduction, is central to the world of children's fantasy books.
This notion figures strongly in almost all classics of children's literature, from Alice in Wonderland, To Narnia, To Peter Pan, to Harry Potter, children fall through rabbit holes, wardrobes, train platforms, and other magical barriers.
In all instances the fantasy of entering another world satisfies the superficial desire for a break from the known, from the familiarity which breeds, if not contempt, then something remarkably like it.
There are of course deeper tensions at work as well, the fundamental fear of adulthood is usually bound up with a weariness with the mundane. Though some books, such as Edward Eagers' delightful Half Magic, don't insist that adulthood is directly equivalent to the mundane, most fantasy books do, thus confusing by consolidation the superficial and profound elements which underlie the fantasy of escape into a magical world.
There are some instances, however, where the equation of adulthood with the mundane springs not from the employment of a superficial literary device, but from a deeply felt conviction in the author that, as Oscar Wilde put it succinctly, "adulthood is hell."
It is no accident that books which deal with the abduction or seduction of children into magical realms, such as Peter Pan, tend to be more deeply rooted in the psychology of childhood escapism, as well as being more disturbing to adults.
The haunting sense of growing up representing a fall from grace tends, ironically, to sabotage the fantastic elements of a book, destroying the integrity of its magical world through the inevitable intrusion of anxiety and internal conflict. One need only look at the awful spectacle of Philip Pullman's Amber Spyglass crashing in ruins due to the author's confusion over the implications of puberty, to see a current example.
By and large authors who are willing to see the mundane as a personal state, rather than a developmental condition, produce more satisfying fantasy books. Eva Ibbotson, author of the delightful Secret of Platform 13 and Which Witch, has, until now provided us with a notable current example. Yet she has slipped off the rails somewhat in her new book, Island of the Aunts, a book strongly marked by an unbalanced animosity toward adulthood.
The book=s heroines have attained a state of grace on their hidden island primarily because they never grew up. Their actions, which include kidnapping children, are only saved from being heinous by the fact that they are essentially children themselves.
In expressing what is clearly a profoundly felt anxiety and sense of menace, Ibbotson has succeeded not in spicing up her latest book, but in losing control over the integrity of her creation. There is a lack of control, a hurtling, unfinished air to Island of the Aunts, that reflects an unresolved conflict in its author.