“..Once upon a world, where time is place, a journey beyond imagination is about to unfold…”
Enter a world filled with darkness. A world fraught with peril at every corner, scenes beyond all imagining and magic so thick it could fill the air. Welcome to Abarat…
When we meet our heroine, 16-year-old Candy Quackenbush, for the first time, she is bored with her life in Chickentown USA. Her teacher hates her, her father is an abusive drunken brute, and her mother no longer stands up for Candy or herself when he beats them. Candy remembers often hiding in corners or waiting for the tears to stop after a fresh bout of abuse.
She knows that there must be more out in the world that what she has here; living in a town whose only claim to fame is that it is the largest exporter of chickens in the USA. Perhaps it is this boredom that leads to Candy telling off her teacher, Ms. Shwartz, for being an intolerable bully. Ms. Shwartz, in turn, hating Candy with every fibre of her person, sends her to the principal’s office for expulsion from school. Except, Candy does not go to the principal’s office.
It all started with the doodle…that doodle of waves that she drew in her notebook. Lines upon lines, all crashing and flowing into one another. Her feet and body recognize these waves, this doodle, and lead Candy towards a large open field far away from the town limits. In the centre of this field is a jetty and a skeletal light house, its beauty reduced to ruins. A lighthouse in the middle of Minnesota? Thousands of miles from the ocean? It is there that she meets John Mischief.
John Mischief, a man with antlers on his head, upon which grow seven heads, tells Candy of a land called Abarat, a glorious land where there are twenty-five islands: one island for each hour of the day and The Twenty Fifth Hour, the hour between dawn and dusk that allows itself to slip away.
Mischief tells Candy of magic and asks for her assistance. They are trying to avoid being slaughtered by Mendelsome Shape, a terrible man who has four swords lodged in his back, as if his skin were the sheath for the weapons. Candy must flee with the Brothers John into the Sea of Izabella, and to Abarat, if they have any hope of escaping.
While in Abarat, Candy learns of Pilxer, creator of The Commexo Kid, and Lord Carrion, Lord of Midnight. Pilxer wants a world full of light, whereas Lord Carrion would like the world to remain dark, thank you very much.
Candy also learns that she is more important than she previously thought, and must have her wits about her to stay safe. What with Dragons, Mires (or Stichlings), and the like after her, she has become quite a celebrity. She must work to stay alive…
Abarat (which is the first of four in the Abarat Quartet) is a modern day Wizard of Oz meets Harry Potter meets A Series of Unfortunate Events. Throw in a little bit of Charles Dickens patented darkness, some twisted Barker humour, and you’ve got Abarat .
This book is full. Though it is not a large book, it is as if Barker has taken a world and stuffed it into the Pandora’s Box of Abarat. This book is sprawlingand full of life. The words seem to lift off the page as you read them, creating the images of monsters and magic in front of you. It is an epic tale, a dark tale, a moral tale; all this rolled into one novel. It must have been quite an undertaking.
There are new images presented on each line, on each page. Every word is a contribution to the Abaratian Gods, a homage to what Abarat was, is and will be. Never fear! This being his world, Barker thought we might need a little help imagining things as they should be.
Riddled throughout the book are over a hundred of Barker’s own oil paintings, all in full colour. Abarat is a treat for the eyes as well as the mind. It mesmerizes your sight as you flip the pages along, white knuckled with anticipation to know what will happen to Candy next. The pictures add that dark artistic touch that Barker is famous for; they also let the reader see into Abarat, to feel it more closely than words alone would allow.
There are a few things that stand out to me about this book. First, its darkness. In the introduction to the book, Barker recounts reading tales from such authors as C. S. Lewis and The Wizard of Oz. Influenced by these childhood wonders, he took it upon himself to create something like that, a piece of the canon that would burn brightest.
He has succeeded, though not with light; instead he uses darkness. Abarat is not a particularly happy book. In fact, not many good things happen to our lovely Candy Quackenbush. Throughout she is kidnapped, assaulted, beaten, chased after and treated like filth. She plummets from thousands of feet up in the air from the back of a giant moth created by magic, she is pursued by the brothers Fugit, who wish to beat her and then drive her insane.
The darkness forms a parallel with earlier fantasy works. The Brothers Grimm, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events; all these books have darkness riddled throughout them. There is a sense of danger, a sense of peril.
One thing always happens: good triumphs over evil. Barker has created a dark world filled with mystery and enchantment. One day I hope to see this book as a classic. It is that amazing.
Abarat also reminded me of many other tales I read as a child, the above mentioned among them. I found myself in a few places feeling like I was reading something out of Hansel and Gretel. Barker makes you familiar with the story, comfortable with it.
Thus you are more likely to immerse yourself in the Sea of Izabella, or the twenty-five islands of Abarat. Even though some parts of Abarat scared me, I felt safe there; I felt welcomed. The book is so layered with parallels and allusion that you can’t help but get lost in it.
Barker has created a magnificent piece of work, and one hell of a cliffhanger. It is a beautiful book, filled with images and wonders, dreams and nightmares and everything in between. I can only wonder what my next visit to Abarat will bring.
Should you choose to visit, I’ll be on the Island of Yebba Dim Day, haggling with a pastry stall owner about the price of a muffin. Come and find me; I’ll be happy to show you around.