Monday, January 16, 2012

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

"And, at that moment, I felt my own ignorance spread suddenly out behind me like a pair of wings, and every single thing I didn't know was a feather on those wings.  I could feel them tugging at the air, restless to be airborne."

Reading a book by Frank Cottrell Boyce feels like putting yourself in the hands of a master storyteller.  It's a little bit mesmerizing, a little bit magical.  He's also a writer I love to hear read out loud.  The Unforgotten Coat has a lot in common with his first book, Millions, which I adored;  it's funny, insightful and optimistic,  has a touch of bittersweetness, characters I defy you not to fall in love with,  and writing which just lifts right off the page.  The Unforgotten Coat has a simpler storyline and  is aimed at a younger audience than Boyce's previous works, but it's every bit as sophisticated.  Polaroid photographs are used add a mysterious visual element which expands the story. (The photographs were provided by filmmakers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney, who have worked with Boyce in his other career as a screenwriter.)  And speaking of photographs, I love the cover of this book.  The child, the coat and the title all seem to pop at once--I find it really striking.

The Unforgotten Coat is narrated, in flashback, by Julie, who as a child went to school in the U.K.   When two refugee brothers from Mongolia join her grade 6 class near the end of the school year she is instantly fascinated.  Chingis, the older brother, invites her to be their "good guide" to their new country and Julie gladly takes on the role, hoping to be invited to their home, which she is sure must be full of exotic treasures, just as Chingis and his brother Nergui bring new ideas into Julie's life.

"A few weeks before, I had not known that there was any such thing as a portable bamboo palace.  I hadn't even known there was such a person as Chingis Khan, who had been born with a clot of blood grasped in his fist and who had conquered nearly the entire world in hardly any time at all, sweeping over the steppe into Central Asia and right up to the very gates of Europe.  I hadn't even known there was such a place as the steppe!  The steppe that was flat as pavement but as wide as a sea, with nothing but grass and great bustards.  Wide as a sea and I hadn't even known it was there.  If there were seas of grass and woven palaces in this world, why couldn't there be demons too?  And why wouldn't one of them be crouched on our doorstep on William Morris Avenue right that minute, munching a boy made of dough?"

Julie does her best, but the task of guiding the brothers safely in their new home and culture proves more difficult than she could have known. I don't want to give away the rest of the plot, although I will say it ends, like Millions, with a loss that is healed.  The book was inspired by the very first class visit Boyce made after Millions was published. He met a refugee from Mongolia, a girl named Misheel who "just lit up the room".

"The other children were touchingly proud of her and told me about the time Misheel showed up to the school dance in full Mongolian costume with her elaborate headdress and fabulous robes.  They knew all about Mongolia--its customs and epic landscape--because of her.  Her presence massively enriched their lives...Then once day the Immigration Authorities came and snatched her and her family in the middle of the night.  Misheel managed to get one call through to Sue Kendall before one of the officers grabbed her phone.  And, of course, she has not been seen since...I do know that a country that authorizes its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can't really be called civilized." 

One of the things I admire most about this book is how dimensional Boyce has made Chingis and Nergui --they are not at all stock "exotic refugee" figures but fully realized individuals, and their world view is treated with a respect that seems to come completely naturally.

Boyce has donated this book to the Reader Organisation, which aims to transform "society's collective approach to reading by making literature accessible, available, emotionally rewarding, and fun."  Hey, that's what librarians want to do too!