'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Review: Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool

It’s just so glorious to read a magical story that’s not steeped in the stereotypical fairies, wizards, goblins or mysteriously shifting worlds that appear in the blink of an eye or through some unseeming earthly portal.

Since Enid Blyton sent us on Wishing Chair and Magic Faraway Tree adventures, and CS Lewis penned his superlative Narnia series in the 1950s, writers everywhere have pounced on magical tales set in parallel worlds and crammed with all manner of things stereotypically ‘magical’. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – but anyone who loves fantasy will admit that these stereotypical elements are becoming dangerously close to being overdone.

As an adult reading young fiction – and indeed, Hirsch’s books are enjoyed by children and adults alike – I felt totally drawn in to Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool. Hirsch has the lovely ability to write simply yet evocatively; I could clearly see the strawberry fields in the opening chapter; I could sharply imagine the streets in town and see the family’s grand old dilapidated house as if I had closed my eyes and happened across the screening of a film behind my eyelids.

Darius Bell is the youngest son of Hector and Micheline Bell, descendants of the noble Bell family, who live in a grand old mansion that is quietly falling to pieces. The beautiful Bell House and land were originally granted to the family many generations before, and as the Bell men believed in all play and no work, the coffers very soon ran dry, leaving the current generation of Bells reliant on a skeleton staff. This staff live on the property for free, in exchange for services.

But cash flow isn’t the family’s only problem. In order to retain possession of the house, each generation of the Bell family has to come up with a Gift for the local authorities. This Gift requires no value – it can be as simple as a flower from the garden, but as the Bells are a family of proud noblemen, each of the past generations presented a Gift that was both grand and beautiful – something to impress the local townspeople and prove the Bells were still living large.

Alas, for Hector Bell, there is simply no money for such a Gift, and this family-proud man is devastated that he may have to swallow his pride and dishonour the Bell name by admitting he is indeed in the poor house. A wheelbarrow full of the estate’s vegetables looks like the only Gift the family can afford to give.

Watching his father desperately scrabble to come up with a grand Gift is heartbreaking for young Darius, and it quite literally takes an earthquake to help him come up with a solution that may just save the Bell name – and his father’s shame. When out walking on the property after a mild earthquake hits town, Darius comes across a huge gash in the earth – and what he finds inside this cavern, hovering over a magnificent, glittering pool, is something so beautiful, it’s without question it will make the most stunning Gift of all.

But will it? What edicts from the past will unsettle the master plan Darius has to save the family name?

Hirch’s beautiful novel combines a delightfully ‘magical’ yet real world storyline with an evocative voice and classically eccentric characters that could easily pop into life in a film. Just think of those delightfully cartoonish characters from Babe and you will catch a glimpse into the lovely characterization of Darius and his cast of extras.

The other thing this story does is provide a beautifully didactic ending – like all the best tales of yore – but without slapping you in the face with wet fish morality. The ending of this book is more than educational and just – it is downright touching, with not an ounce of obviousness or schmaltz in sight. It is also an ending that skips past expectation, takes a detour and curves into an unexpected home plate, making you even more proud and impressed by these lovely characters.

I read Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool in a day and immediately wished I could jump on a train (only train travel would be available to the home of Darius Bell) and go visit this family and its small town life. The charm of this book is something both kids and adults will not easily forget, and Hirsch has certainly tapped into a timeless storytelling style that will make you want more.

Let’s hope this talented writer takes us on another Darius adventure soon. I’m glittering in anticipation.

This review first appeared on the Australian Women Online website.

Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool was one of my 6 Younger Reader ‘nominations’ for the Clayton’s Night Awards run by the ACT branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. This night mimics the announcement of the nominees for the Book of the Year Awards, and I was the ‘judge’ in the Younger Reader category.

See my other nominations and their reviews here.