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Susan’s Bookshelves: Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan

Even if you don’t care for fantasy (and that’s me) it is inarguable that CS Lewis’s seven Narnia books grabbed millions of children when they were first published in the 1950s. And they still exert timeless magic. They’ve never been out of print. There have been countless spin-off TV versions, stage adaptations and films. People are still intrigued by Narnia. And that, inevitably perhaps, means curiosity about its creator.

Patti Callahan’s novel, published last year, is effectively a child-friendly biography of CS Lewis wrapped up in a fictional quest for information.

This is the thrust: Megs is a talented maths student who has just started at Somerville College, Oxford in the early 1950s when this would have been rare for a young woman. Back home in Worcester, her eight year old brother, George, is dying of a heart condition.  He wants to know “where Narnia comes from” so Megs sets off to find out. Lewis, is after all, an Oxford academic and she contrives a meeting with him and his brother Warnie, who cheerfully befriend her. Jack (CS Lewis’s name of choice) gradually tells her his life story which she packages up in the form of stories and relays to George who gradually comes to understand that narratives, such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe don’t come from any one place. They are a complex melange of life’s experiences seasoned with lots and lots of imagination.  In Lewis’s case, that includes a lonely childhood of frequent illness in a room with a big wardrobe, finding the town of Narni on a map of Italy, attending a dreadful boarding school, front line service in the first world war, taking in evacuees in the second world war and converting from atheism to Christianity

The framing device is, perhaps, a bit clumsy and certainly sentimental but Callahan is very good on the significance of stories. Myths are full of truths. We use stories to explore and explain things we don’t understand including our own pasts. And Megs who initially sees fiction and mathematics are being polar opposites eventually realises that good mathematicians need to be imaginative and creative and that equations are just another form of story.

I thought at first that the account of Lewis’s time at Wynyard School was an absurdly over egged take on British boarding school life by an American author who had read too much Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Tom Brown’s School Days. It seems I was wrong. A bit of research showed me that Lewis left diaries detailing just how cruel it really was. The headmaster ended up detained in a psychiatric hospital.

Nonetheless Callahan’s period detail is shaky in places. It is most unlikely for example, that Padraig’s father’s car would have had a radio at this date. And the notion of Megs, a deferential, quiet female student, walking into a pub on her own and buying a drink in the early fifties is laughable.  And occasionally I was irritated by weak writing, shoddily edited. How could anyone have allowed “… he found every book on Norse mythology he could find”  to stand?

The shifts from first to third person narration, although currently fashionable, are a bit odd too.

In general, though, this is a reasonably worthwhile take on a well worn subject. Thank you to the friend who drew my attention to it when she spotted me asserting my dislike of fantasy on Facebook.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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