There is something deliciously wonderful about subsuming yourself in any book that takes places at Christmas, even if like Andrew Zurcher’s debut novel, Twelve Nights, it is more situational than thematic.
There might be little that is innately festive in Zurcher’s lustrously-novel but that is in fact it’s greatest strength in some ways; it takes a time of the year that is inherently about safety, escapism, beauty, wonder and hope and inverts everything, for a time at least, delivering up a story of people in danger, a whole other world where authoritarian is on the march and doesn’t care who it hurts, and a family torn apart just when they should be at their most together.
Having said that, this remarkable book, which loses itself at times in its world building and philosophising, ending up more Lost than Lord of the Rings with its paucity of answers, very cleverly sets its epic adventure into a hitherto unknown world, for young girl Kay Worth-More at least, at a time of the year when the world is supposed to be a brighter, cleaner, more happy place.
Instead, Kay finds herself thrust into a nightmare, her father seemingly vanishing from existence, her younger sister Ell caught up with her, and her mother traumatised by a life upended.
“Kay turned to the window again. She counted the street-lamps as they passed, numbering them by their glows on the silvery ground, still frosty from the night before. Her left eye was now growing ridiculously tired – or maybe it was the funny flatness of seeing with just one eye – because in the centre of the circle of light cast by every lamp she was sure she could make out a little circular shadow on the ground.” (P. 5)
Ho ho ho and pass the eggnog while I wrap myself in tinsel will you?
The thing is, Zurcher’s decision to contrast the traditional home and hearth of Christmas with the rip-roaring family-splitting adventure Kay finds herself on, one replete with wraiths, eternally-living magical beings and ancient rites, is not quite such a glaring juxtaposition at it might appear.
In fact, Kay’s flight across Europe and the Middle East in search of her vanished father, her discovery of a society of people such as Will, who is more than his goofy persona might suggest, and his best friend Flip, and the climax where, naturally enough, evil is vanquished (though to what end no one is really sure) is the very essence of family and belonging.
The trick in the tale here is that Kay is not simply unearthing a whole other dimension of life unknown to her, and indeed to most of us who can’t see what lurks in the shadows and on the beguiling periphery of our vision, but finding out all kinds of things about her family, revelations that will both reshape and transform her family life, but also, rather ironically, cement and confirm it in ways she has been longing for.
For Kay is the child of a workaholic archeologist father who disappears off on digs at a moment’s notice, whose inner sanctum is his study, full of papers and unwashed plates, and a patient but increasingly exasperated mother who finally has enough one Christmas eve when the family isn’t together opening presents and celebrating as normal people do, and who puts her daughters in the car to find her husband over at his place of work.
Of course, he’s not there, no one has heard of him, and as the mystery deepens and grows, and Christmas Day is less about turkey and bon bons than being abducted in the middle of the night and crashing out of hot air balloons at dawn, it becomes clear to Kay that whatever it is she might have wanted, the journey to get there is going to be far more vaulting, surprising and complex than she could have imagined.
As epic, fish-out-of-water quests go, Twelve Nights is, for the most part, a satisfying read; we have a One who may in fact not be the One but also may be (ah, the maybes are intoxicatingly elusive!), a titanic battle between “good” and “bad”, great philosophical chasms between two camps unable to appreciate the others’ contrary world view, and a battle to the finish where the old ways might give way not to something liberal and fresh but to something draconian and stultifyingly tyrannical.
And all over the twelve nights of Christmas, no less!
“The old synthesis, Kay, was between the imaginers and the plotters. Always, since time was, the great rift has yawned between these two ways – the warp against the weft – those who create from nothing, and those who believe only in causation. The plotters cannot accept that the imaginers conceive, and the imaginers cannot suffer the sterile mechanics of the plotters. To the plotters, the imaginers are charlatans; to the imaginers, the plotters are machines. This had always been the great divide.” (P. 215)
Where Twelve Nights does excel with its sumptuous world building, its luxuriant storytelling – Zurcher has a poetic way with words that is damn near entrancing, a weaving of words that lulls you into a happy place where words feel physically beautiful around you – and its vibrant characterisation, it stumbles with its too-dense passages that explain while they don’t explain enough, its philosophical meanderings that sound immensely pretty but end up with too many words saying too little, and a plot that is A to B bog standard at times, winningly scintillating at times.
Overall though for all its imperfections, this is a book to lose yourself into, in the same way that Lord of the Rings or His Dark Materials draws you in, a totality of fantastical experience in a world so removed, and yet eerily similar to your own – the themes of two opposing philosophies and a march to fascist overlording will strike a chord – that it’s hard not to feel a giddy sense of excitement at the possibilities that unfold.
It helps immensely that Kay is a bright, independent and thoroughly capable young girl but also someone who is, at times, just a child, overwhelmed, unsure and wanting to ask more questions that she has time for.
She becomes, as all good protagonists should, our entry point into this marvellously complex and alluringly mythos-filled world – Zurcher is the Director of Studies at Queen’s College, Cambridge who writes on the likes of Spenser and Shakespeare, and it shows for better, and worse, at times – one which might be lacking in answers but which delivers up exactly what otherworldly adventures like this should which is a journey into places and idea unseen which nonetheless feel intimate and familiar, and which in the end, reaffirms what really matters to the world at large, and to us.