Review of the Day: The New Policeman
The New Policeman by Kate Thompson. Greenwillow Books (a Harper Collins imprint). $16.99.
The Irish children’s fantasy novel. It sounds like they’d be a dime a dozen, doesn’t it? Truth be told, it’s remarkably difficult to find one for kids if you happen to be perusing the shelves of your local bookstore. English? Can’t get enough of those. Welsh? Less common but Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander (both current residents of America) found much of their inspiration in that part of the world. Yet the Irish are a different beast altogether. Though they’ve a rich cultural background and more history than you can shake a stick at, their children’s fantasies have been slow in breaking into the American marketplace. Enter “The New Policeman”. A winner of the Whitbread Award and the Guardian Award for children's fiction, the book poses a simple question: Who knows where the time goes? The answer involves fairies, paganism, lost socks, and music.
Rumor has it that there are twenty-four hours in the day, but you wouldn’t know it to look at J.J. Liddy and his family. From sunup to sundown everyone has to bust a gut to get anything done. Fortunately, whenever J.J.’s family holds a ceili people always make time to come over and enjoy the music and dancing. Only this time, J.J.’s gotten rebellious. He’s just discovered that many people in town are convinced that his great-grandfather once murdered a priest and he's having a bit of a tiff with his best friend. J.J. doesn’t know where his loyalties lie, until he promises his mother that he’ll buy her a little extra time for her birthday. Little does he suspect that the true reason there aren't any minutes to spare is that they've been leaking into the fairy land Tir na n’Og. Now J.J. must navigate this dying world with the fiddler Aengus at his side and determine how best to locate this dangerous leak before it spells the end to both the fairy and mortal realms.
When I first began reading the title, I figured that the idea of no one ever having any time on their hands was a very adult concept. Yet as I read on and thought about it I saw how wrong this assumption really was. We live in a fast-paced world these days, and many kids haven’t a moment to spare anymore. After school activities and sports effectively munch up any moments that could otherwise be used for relaxation. Sometimes it really does feel that someone or something has been sapping our time away, bit by anxious bit. Thompson effectively taps into that feeling. In her book the buses are always late, no matter how quickly they drive. As a result, music almost stands as a kind of cure-all. Each chapter (most lasting no longer than a couple pages) ends with a page of sheet music and a title that’s applicable to the section just read. Thompson’s love of the art is unquestionable. No one has written a children’s book praising Irish tunes better than she’s done at this point in time.
Now I’ll tell you right off the bat that the book starts at a slow, leisurely pace. Kids looking for a dragon or a fight scene on page one are bound to be disappointed. Come to think of it, kids looking for a dragon or fight scene on pages one through four hundred and seven are also bound to be disappointed. You’re far more likely to find a high-spirited jig in these pages than a battle, bloody confrontation, or cackling villain. This is not a bad thing, but for kids that enjoy their Percy Jackson books, “The New Policeman”, may strike them as unbearably slow. And to be honest, for the first 130 pages, I can't blame them. Thompson sees no reason to rush things. Though her characters may be running about hurry-scurry without any extra time to do things, it isn’t until Part Two of the book that any visions of magic even begin to appear. And while I don’t want to encourage any writers to feel compelled to give in to the demand out there for action-based drama, nor do I think a slow-paced supposedly fantasy-based novel involving music and time should wait until 100 pages have passed to give child readers a taste of what they want. Had even the slightest drop of magic appeared earlier in the book that would have been fine. Thompson, unfortunately, seems to almost want to prevent child readers from getting too much fantastical satisfaction. There are “fairies” here sure, but they’re just regular human people who live forever, turn mortals into animals, and happen to be particularly good with music. Leprechauns supposedly haunt Tir na n’Og, but Thompson tantalizingly keeps them off-stage so that the reader never sees a single one. The only magical creature that looks and acts in a fantastical manner is a Puka who shows up for five pages and is never seen again.
None of this is to say that the book is badly written, of course. I just want to make it clear that when compared to fellow Irish fantasy, “The Hounds of the Morrigan”, by Pat O’Shea (and there are similarities), O’Shea offers you a little more bang for your buck. But of course the internal logic of Thompson’s world is spot on with lots to enjoy. She can describe the banjo as “a monstrous instrument”, and that, “they should have left it in America where it belongs”, with impunity. Thompson also steers clear of ever becoming too twee. When I saw that all the missing socks in the world end up in Tir na n’Og, that fact threatened to tip the tale into preciousness. Fortunately, it is explained to J.J. that if there are a lot of socks in a given area, that means that in his world there would be a house on that spot. Otherwise, crossing over might mean that the fairies end up in someone’s kitchen.
The fairies are charming but you couldn’t call them good. Certainly J.J. grows fond of them as a whole, but when you examine what it is that they do, it comes off looking pretty terrible. They exchange their own babies for that of regular mortals (hence the changeling idea) and then donate the real children to orphanages. There’s even a kind of Peter Pan effect due to the unchanging nature of Tir na n’Og that renders the inhabitants forgettable and apt to meet up with past loves decades after they should. They are, to put it plainly, adequately heartless. Thompson obviously knows her history well. When Aengus says that, “Caring is another of those things like worrying ... We’re useless at it,” you believe him.
Thompson does interesting things with Irish history as well. The end of beliefs in fairies and Paganism started when Christianity came in. At one point Aengus explains to J.J. that the reason that mortals never wanted to go to Tir na n’Og was that, “... they wanted time. They wanted to have pasts and futures. They wanted the ability to shape their world and to accumulate wealth and power. Christianity had just arrived, so they weren’t so worried about dying, now that they could look to an afterlife.” Certainly that particular religion doesn’t get much of a boost in this book, but Thompson ties in nicely the different religious eras of Ireland. I suspect that if I knew my Irish history better I could even match portions of this story to their real world historical counterparts.
And it’s just so... so... so bloody Irish! If you don’t know the legends of Diarmud and Grainne, this book won’t help you any. Really, it’s a fun read. Plenty for the patient reader to find and enjoy. The idea of fairies being regular people echoes neatly Elizabeth Pope’s, “The Perilous Gard”, albeit with more dancing and less symbolic human sacrifices. The right reader for this book is the child that is patient. The kind that won’t mind muddling through backstory and drawn out character development. Once the ball gets rolling Thompson can’t be beat, of course. And for fans of Eire and jigs named things like “The Priest and His Boots”, it will be a satisfying read.