A review of I, Coriander by Sally Gardner
Published 2005, Orion Children’s Books
Disclosure: I am a HUGE Potter fan. I can rave on about it for days on end, which is why I don’t think I will be writing about Harry anytime soon. (Unless I feel a sustained urge to write something that would rival the length of any dissertation.) And so, when I finished Deathly Hallows, I was finding it very hard to find pleasurable reading. I was being constantly disappointed by the books I read, even going against my always-finish-a-book policy because of my HP hangover. (Upon the birth of this blog, I resolved to go back to those books in the near future, as retrospect begs me to admit that I might have judged them quite unfairly at the time.) I honestly, quite unreasonably, thought I would never appreciate a YA novel again.
So thank Sally Gardner for I, Coriander!
I, Coriander is basically a fairy tale, complete with your usual cast of lost princess, evil stepmother, wicked witch, and enchanted prince. For good measure though, we also have an abusive preacher, a talking raven, and lots of Puritans.
You read that right: Puritans. Because aside from being a fairy tale, the book can also be classified under historical fiction. The narrative is set against the background of England’s Commonwealth period. Soon after the story starts, we hear characters talking about the beheading of Charles I. The end of the book offers “Some Historical Background” for the reader, but from the story itself, you’d know that it was a time when harmless luxuries (such as art and children’s toys) were considered an affront to God. At one point, the stepmother in our book even says, “Tables with turned and carved legs only encourage the Devil to dine.”
Oh, the evil stepmother Maud Jarret née Leggs. It’s very rare to come by characters so hateful and arrogant that you just find yourself wishing you could reach into the pages to inflict much-deserved bodily harm.* Gardner gives us a LOT to hate: she’s ugly (black teeth, warts and all), she treats everyone like animals, she’s a sloth and a glutton, AND she justifies all she does as the will of God.
It’s amazing how annoyed you can get at Maud, considering that right beside her is Arise Fell, the crooked — that can be applied both literally and figuratively — preacher man who, at the slightest provocation, hits children with his hand (which he fondly calls the deliverer of the wrath of God). But I guess it helps that Maud is always there to cheer him on whenever the slapping commences.
Maud and Arise enter the life of Coriander Hobie soon after the tragic death of our heroine’s mother, Eleanor. This tragedy unfortunately coincides with unsettling political events for people like Coriander’s father, who supported the Royalist cause. Seeing no choice, he follows a friend’s advice to “marry a good Puritan woman.” That does not bode well for red-headed Coriander, who was raised in a room with walls painted with fairy tales, and taught to read Latin and Greek. Oh, and there’s that minor issue that Eleanor might have passed on magical genes to Coriander.
If I say more about the narrative, I might as well give you the whole story, which is told in seven parts, with each part concluding as a candle goes out. I will say this though: it all starts with a pair of sparkling silver shoes.
Gardner tells this story in enchantingly beautiful, flowing prose that captures the language and life of the era, without sounding archaic and alien. Told in first person, Coriander’s story is gripping and enchanting — it hooked me in right from the start: And this being my story and a fairy tale besides, I will start once upon a time… . And just like that, I found myself sitting a little lower, burrowing further into my pillows, and taking comfort in the promise of magic, adventure, and romance.
All that it delivered, plus quite a lot more, everything of which led me to realize that I was an idiot for even thinking that I could give up on YA fiction. For ever thinking that, you are welcome to reach into the screen, and punish me with much-deserved bodily harm, even as Maud cheers you on.
* Top of mind, Maud is equaled only by Dolores Umbridge of the Ministry of Magic from the Harry Potter series, King Joffrey of House Lannister in the Game of Thrones saga, or King Einon from the movie Dragonheart. I know that’s not a book character, but Einon deserves a mention for being pure evil. Game of Thrones is not recommended for teens or younger kids, otherwise, definitely enjoyable reading.