If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973
How can you tell if a book or film is magic realism? Let’s say you go to work and you notice that your colleague Stan is already at his desk, hard at work. This comes as a bit of a surprise because you went to Stan’s funeral yesterday.
- If Stan is somewhat see-through and keeps fading in and out, but he’s still pretty much nailing that presentation for the TELAWKI project you were both working on, it’s an urban fantasy and you try to keep him under wraps at least until after you wrap up the contract.
- If bits of Stan keep breaking off and he starts to take an unhealthy interest in your brainssss, it’s a Zombie Apocalypse fantasy, and you send him up to corporate where he’ll fit right in.
- If Stan is a hologram sent by a galactic princess to steal TELAWKI’s evil death star plans, this is SciFi and you’re probably a robot or at least a conflicted android.
- If Stan turns out to have faked his death and has come back to stop TELAWKI’s global conspiracy, it’s number 237 in the Bourne Series, and really—who cares?
- If nobody pays attention to Stan except to stand around bitching about the way billable hours are allocated on the TELAWKI project even though TELAWKI is the code name for The End of Life As We Know It, it’s magic realism** and Stan is an Ironic Reminder of something or other. (**Unless Stan’s drinking a beer, in which case it’s probably a commercial for Corona.)
Blinsby by Adam S. Leslie & Peter Tunstall
Set during a fictional retelling of the 1980s, in a parallel version of rural England, Blinsby is in turns comedy, conspiracy thriller, Kafkaesque nightmare, and a surreal, evocative portrait of childhood nostalgia. When Class 5’s inquisitive new boy, Jack, disappears without trace, 10-year-old Erasmus suspects a cover up that reaches right to the top. His investigations bring him back to Jack’s final, troubling question: “Have you ever wondered what happens when we leave school?” Erasmus never has – and now it might be too late to start. Discover Blinsby’s dark secret…
- Title: Blinsby
- Authors: Adam S. Leslie & Peter Tunstall
- Genre: Magic Realism
- Publisher: Crooked Cat Publishing Ltd
- Date of Publication: April 11, 2014
- Number of pages: 406
Magic realism is a genre that I like better before and after (as opposed to during) the experience. Actually reading the book is work. Or maybe the hard work happens at the beginning, when you have to turn off all the ways you normally look at and think about the world.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, the “real” world was based on the falsified reality of the United Fruit Company, so it’s the magic world of ghosts that tells truth, while inventions and changes of the outside world become the stuff of fantasy. “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise … to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay. It was an intricate stew of truths and mirages that convulsed the ghost of José Arcadio Buendía with impatience and made him wander all through the house even in broad daylight.“—Gabriel García Márquez (after the arrival of the railroad, when dozens of new inventions—the phonograph, the telephone, the electric lightbulb—flooded Macondo).
In the quirky world of Blinsby, there are two ways to read the book. You can try to figure out what’s going on, what connects the various events, and what it means. Frankly, if you try that, it may well end up making you mental. OR you could turn off everything you’ve learned since you were ten years old. Remember that year? You were starting to get a sense of yourself as more than a little kid—you’re the top year at your school, impossibly wise and grownup in the eyes of the lower grades. You know the truth about Santa and the Easter Bunny, you’ve recognized your mom’s disguised handwriting in the notes she left under your pillow with the money exchanged for your baby teeth. BUT you also know, for a fact, that there is magic in the world. Maybe it’s the ninja (which you’re pretty sure you could be) or the astronaut (which you might decide to be) or even the young wizard/witch (which you can’t help thinking you really should be). The point is that at ten, those options are still open to you.
They’re open to the young students at Blinsby School as well. What is NOT open to question is any possibility that the rulers of your ten-year-old world—your parents and teachers—could be wrong about anything. Full stop.
Blinsby takes place roughly in three acts. In the first, ten-year-old Erasmus is waiting outside the school as his parents, along with the parents of his classmates, attend a meeting inside. The only other child there is Jack, the popular new boy in school. Erasmus is unwillingly captivated by Jack, invited into the thriller adventure of his life when he joins Jack in spying on the Parents Evening. It’s our invitation too, into a ten-year-old world of monsters and airships and planets that sing.
As a reader, you think you get it, and you smile at their imagination. That is, until Jack asks his question. “Do you ever wonder what happens when we leave school?” And it’s when Erasmus can’t answer—can’t even remember what happened to the Class 5 who left school the year before—that it starts to occur to you that maybe something else, something the ten-year-old doesn’t know, something that makes parents cry, is going on here.
The second part of Blinsby follows the school day. Erasmus wakes up and goes to school, excited at the possibilities opened up by his adventures with Jack, only to find that his new friend has been expelled for “doing the wrong maths”. Shaken and confused, he spends the rest of the school day looking for answers.
In keeping with the tenets of magic realism, Blinsby is the essence of a 1980s rural British school. The teachers are infallible and terrifying, the children both innocent and oddly wise in their enthusiastic hatred for everything connected with the school. At the same time, they accept with matter-of-fact nonchalance that compasses and other instruments don’t work at Blinsby, that one minute they can be stranded and left to die on an island and the next minute look up and see they are only yards away from the church and town, or that there seems to be a “mythical invisible sixth classroom called Class X” which explains all the other phenomena.
Of course, the authors also accept the inexplicable, and don’t really bother to comment or confirm its reality. This is just how things are at Blinsby so no need to draw attention to it. “And it is, after all, a very, very good school.”
So what is the reader’s role in this? While the children accept the only reality they know, the reader slowly and—in my case at least—unwillingly acknowledges what most children know instinctively: that there is a conspiracy of the adult world that will end up changing them forever from who and what they now know themselves to be. As readers, we have to decide whether we’re part of an adult plot that will force these ten-year-olds living on imagination and possibilities into a choice between joining the conspiracy or disappearing into the invisibility of Class X. Is this a story straight from the imagination of a ten-year-old, or is it Lord of the Flies meets 1984?
And that brings us to the third part of the story of Blinsby. While it doesn’t begin to bother with tying up lose ends, it does at least provide Jack with the answer to his question: “Do you ever wonder what happens when we leave school?”
As I said, this was a difficult book to read. My normal criteria for plot and character development don’t really apply. But for the genius of getting into the heads of ten-year-olds, and for the uncanny ability to create absolute horror out of the absolutely mundane grade five classroom, I’d have to give it four stars. I realize we’ll never get answers to all the questions raised by Blinsby, but the ones our unwilling imaginations will provide to our inner ten-year-olds are troubling enough.
**I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
INTERVIEW with Adam S. Leslie
What was your first car? I never reached that level of adulthood.
Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly? We were just the right age when Return of the Jedi came out – everyone at school was obsessed with the Star Wars films, and with the spin-off Kenner toys. We collected them feverishly. The richer kids had the space ships, but I was mostly happy with the figures. I loved Jabba’s monstrous henchmen and the armoured Imperials, especially the biker scout. He was my favourite of all. Years later, when I was an extra on Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, I had a long chat with a stuntman called Frank Henson, who played the biker scout in all of the studio shots. That was a pretty exciting day.
(In Blinsby, the children’s obsession with sinister cartoon series Happy Tom and the Summer Man is an allusion to our own obsession with Star Wars and its merchandise.)
I’ve probably over-watched Star Wars though, and I’m more evangelical about Firefly. It’s easier to love. I’ve watched the whole series through four times now, I think! Peter will disagree, but I consider Objects In Space to be one of the best pieces of television ever made. Our Mrs Reynolds is glorious, too.
Who would you most like to sit next to on an airplane? Steven Spielberg, mainly so I could spend the flight pitching movies to him. Sorry, Steven.
As a child (or now!), what did you want to be when you grew up? Initially a teacher, although probably because that was pretty much the only job I’d ever really seen up close for any length of time. I liked the idea of setting the work, and of getting the pupils to write stories about interesting things and then reading the results. I think I also liked the idea of not having to do the actual school work myself or being told off by anyone.
Then later I decided I wanted to be the costume designer for Doctor Who after I’d read an article about it in Doctor Who Magazine – until my friend Mark told me with great authority that only women can be costume designers (thanks, Mark), so that put paid to that. Following this disappointment, I simply decided not to grow up, and have been doing a pretty good job of it ever since.
Are the names of the characters in your novels significant? To a certain degree. I must admit to being somewhat annoyed by names which are transliterations of that character’s personality or situation (Hannibal Lektor – a cannibal who reads! Will Dormer – will he sleep? etc.) It bothers me, I don’t know why.
In Blinsby, we tried to make the characters names either evocative of their rural location, or just references to random stuff for the fun of it. So, in the former camp, there are lots of nature-based names: Benedict Hornbeam, Malcolm Hawkmoth, James Egg, Saffron Milkcap (and her brother Rufus, both types of wild mushroom), Katy Battle-Twig, Mrs Boletus, and so forth.
But there’s also characters like Theodora Pinback, so called because we’d just watched the movie Dark Star; or Alex Fairlight, named after a ZX Spectrum game we used to play as children. Frank Jackdaw falls into both camps – he’s a bird, of course, but is also the English translation of the name Franz Kafka.
What is the single biggest challenge of creating the settings in your novels? On one hand, creating the settings was quite easy, because they’re based very closely on the part of rural Lincolnshire in which Peter and I grew up – so we had very good first-hand knowledge of the actual geography of the places and how they looked and felt. I can’t think of any occasions where we managed to bamboozle each other on that front whilst writing separately.
The challenging part – and also the most exciting part – was creating a properly immersive world, one which could feel almost interactive, in a way. The opening chapter aside (which is a mini adventure that takes place during the summer holidays) the story starts with the characters arriving in the morning for the start of the school day, then runs through in exaggerated real time to hometime at the climax of the story. We’re hoping the readers will have a sense of living a complete school day alongside these characters, and feel a connection with their own childhood. It’s a dark and strange and magical book, but it’s also universal enough that anyone can recognise their own schooldays in there too, I think.
What are you working on right now? I’m working on a movie screenplay called Eloise, which is part thriller and part dissection of the ‘Manic Pixie Dreamgirl’ / ‘But I’m A Nice Guy’ tropes.
BONUS! EXCERPT FROM BLINSBY!
Mr Lupus-Warrow and television didn’t mix. It was something to do with his hyper-rapid mind, according to Malcolm, which caused him to see only the raster as it shot across the screen re-colouring each glowing pixel one by one by one. Or perhaps Mr Lupus-Warrow simply didn’t understand what television was. Either way, there was something deeply unsettling about the way the moving pictures failed to affect him, while circumstantial detail, such as static, had a mesmeric hold. Any actual imagery was lost on their teacher; all Frank could be sure of was that whatever Mr Lupus-Warrow was seeing in the flickering electric window, it wasn’t what they saw.
Love, fear, danger, tragedy and joy held no meaning for Mr Lupus-Warrow. People and emotions were neither here nor there to him, and narrative an alien concept. He’d often switch sides in the middle of a climactic scene, possibly without even realising it. He quite liked facts, although he preferred fighting and rhythmical noise, such as hammering or reverberation from having the volume too high. Mainly though, it seemed to be just an abstract sense of intensity that he sought, mixing up the pictures and conversation by jabbing in random fury at the remote control and pressing many buttons at once in the hope of getting something interesting to happen. Once he’d accidentally made it stop between channels and they’d heard loud Russian voices battling through a storm of white noise. Mr Lupus-Warrow was delighted, and assured the class that he’d known each of those Russian people personally, as personal friends, and that they were all dead.
Sometimes after wheeling in Blinsby School’s TV set, Mr Lupus-Warrow would look thoughtfully into everyone’s eyes and then wheel it straight back out again, as if something had suddenly convinced him that they weren’t ready for that particular programme. On other even rarer days, he would carefully explain what they were about to watch, being sure to impress upon them the philosophical and ethical ramifications of whatever it was. Then he’d turn the colour saturation up to maximum and sit at the back of the class, idly flicking through channels for an hour or two, calmly engrossed in the jerky pools of interference, before reverently dragging the beast away, the plug popping out with a tongue of blue flame in his wake. When he later asked if anyone had any questions, no one ever did, and this seemed to satisfy him all the more.
Frank couldn’t imagine what kind of programme Mr Lupus-Warrow would consider important enough to cut short playtime for. Something educational? Maybe, but why not just wait till lesson time? Or a video about safety? After all, he’d been pretty fixated on it during Assembly. Hmm… but something like that they’d watch in the hall with all the other classes, wouldn’t they? All right, music then. A sing-along. Perhaps this would be the new Monday afternoon tradition for Autumn Term, which wouldn’t be so bad. Unless… unless Mr Lupus-Warrow was intending to make each of them sing solo in front of the class. That’d be dreadful, the humiliation. Worse, Frank would almost certainly be up first – everyone knew he liked music and could find Middle C on a piano. Terror gripped him, and he suddenly wanted to run for the door, flee to the cloakroom and hide out among the coats.
But then he remembered that this was all speculation. It probably wasn’t music at all, let alone anything that involved singing in front of everyone.
So what was it?
Hah. Knowing Mr Lupus-Warrow, it could be anything.