All Hail Geraldine McCaughrean

Alison Morris -- March 27th, 2009

Last Saturday I vaporized my morning finishing one book (which was INCREDIBLE but about which I’m not allowed to talk just yet) and then another (which was also incredible and which I am allowed to talk about and will do so… NOW.)

A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean (pronounced "Muh-cork-run") was first published in the U.K. way back in 1988, at which time it was awarded both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award. Soon thereafter I believe Oxford University Press published it here, but at some point during in the many years that have passed since that time, the book went out of print. Thankfully, Marshall Cavendish has rectified that situation by bringing the book back into print this season in paperback (and with a great cover too). In so doing they’re giving American readers a renewed chance to read one HECK of a book by a woman who I happen to think is one of the world’s most talented writers for children and young adults.

I first fell in love with Geraldine McCaughrean’s writing when Simon and Schuster offered me the remarkable opportunity to read a manuscript copy of her then forthcoming book Peter Pan in Scarlet. At the time I hadn’t knowingly read anything by Geraldine and, while I recognized the good work of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, I was very suspicious of the very IDEA that Peter Pan needed or "ought to have" a sequel. I love the original Peter Pan, after all. I think it’s a fantastically fun book with a delightful tongue-in-cheek tone that feels fiendishly devilish as it mock adults from at the start, the finish, and everywhere in between. I thought of Peter Pan as rather holy ground and couldn’t bear the thought of any "contemporary" author defiling it.

But I’m a professional bookseller. I knew S&S was entrusting me with a rare opportunity, so I took it. And on the very first page of Peter Pan in Scarlet I had a revelation: HERE was an author who "got it." Geraldine McCaughrean had somehow done what I thought no one could do: she dusted off Barrie’s characters who (in her telling of their story) had been busy getting on with life for a few decades and breathed new life into them in a way that felt wholly authentic and wonderfully true. Her characters were Barrie’s characters. Her language was Barrie’s language. The more I read of the book, the more I couldn’t understand how Geraldine McCaughrean had done such perfect justice to someone else’s characters and story. SO, I read more of her books. And those impressed me so much I read still more. This was a true love affair. By the time Geraldine came to our store in the fall of 2006, I think I’d read quite a significant percentage of the 140 (!!) or so books she’d written, and there wasn’t one that I didn’t at least enjoy and in most cases marvel at. But I hadn’t read A Pack of Lies until last Saturday, so clearly my education was not complete.

A Pack of Lies is the story of a mother and teenage daughter, Ailsa, who barely make ends meet with the paltry sums they collect by way of sales in their small antique shop. Into their world of depressed near-poverty strides a man by the name of MCC Berkshire who is, it would appear, a compulsive liar. He quickly insinuates himself into their lives, taking up residence in their store and giving himself a job, for which he is paid in room, board, and books, the latter of which he devours constantly before heading out to purchase more (though not, of course, with his own money).

One of the few things that can make MCC put down a book is a disinterested customer — they’re MCC’s specialty. While Ailsa’s compulsively honest mother can’t help but reveal all the flaws in the items she sells and in so doing put off any interested buyer, MCC can take one look at a writing desk and conjure up a tale about its origins that is so rich, so remarkable, so replete with visceral details as to at least quadruple the object’s value. His listeners may not believe his stories, but they ARE enchanted by them, which has the same effect on their buying inclinations. Without MCC, customers leave the little antique shop with a knick-knack or a piece of furniture. With MCC they go home with a piece of history, with a work of art, with tangible evidence of a story.

MCC’s story, however, remains a complete mystery to Ailsa and her mother. Their initial suspicions of him fade and are replaced with an odd, befuddled fondness that grows, albeit a bit unsteadily, until Ailsa’s mother fears that her daughter’s doe-eyed fondness is becoming something more. Who is this MCC? Where does he come from? What is his story? Can a liar be trusted with anyone, let alone one’s daughter?

I’ve never described any book this way before, but I’m calling A Pack of Lies "wickedly delicious." It is puzzling and curious and clever and funny. Surprising, mystifying, beautiful, and then some. One of the great joys of the book is discovering that the short stories it contains (in the form of MCC’s lies) are each as complex and mysterious and spell-binding as the overarching story that contains them. While at first I worried that MCC’s stories would come to feel like lengthy diversions from the book’s central plot, I soon found myself grinning (literally) with eager anticipation of the next tale’s arrival, wondering what yarn MCC would spin next, in what style it would be written, and how many perfect metaphors and similes I’d find there.

Months ago I planned to write a post about Geraldine McCaughrean’s wicked sense of humor and her remarkable use of simile, metaphor, and alliteration, but I didn’t get any farther than to mark passages in a few of her books. Why? Because in marking those passages I wound up rereading large chunks of those books and in so doing eviscerated my post-writing time for that day. (Damn!) But let me give you two samples of Geraldine’s genius, and then you can go off and find all the rest. Or share one of your favorite McCaughrean passages here!

From Chapter Three of A Pack of Lies:

That night, the crickets and toads roared around the house like a migraine, and the moonlight plastered it with sweat, and the flickering shadows of bats flecked the moonbeams as thickly as motes in sunshine. Fireflies were setting a slow fuse to the world, and when it burned right down, there would come an explosion of Papa’s anger. Grace lay awake, trying to think of a lie that would get her out of trouble.

From Chapter Seven of A Pack of Lies:

Dafyd Tresillick wore an oilskin when it rained (and it rains a lot on the west coast of Wales. He wore an oilskin and a sou’wester, even though he was no longer a member of the lifeboat crew. The oilskin was so stiff that it stood up on its own account — a headless apparition haunting the corner of the shed. In light rain he wore only an oiled-wool aran pullover, which smelled of tarry sheep when it got warm but which would keep the rain off nicely so long as nobody washed it in detergent.

Tresillick did not believe in umbrellas. Some people don’t believe in God; Tressilick didn’t believe in umbrellas. In fact, he disbelieved with a pagan fer
vour. He did not own one. He would not be given one — not for birthdays or Christmas or to please his wife. He said that any man who used one was a pansy, and any woman a public pest.

It’s worth reading the rest of this book, just to find out what becomes of dear old Dafyd whose "bald head gleamed as the raindrops rolled in great curves across his scalp like tiny airliners flying over the North Pole."

(I couldn’t resist leaving you with that image.)

8 thoughts on “All Hail Geraldine McCaughrean

  1. Peter Von Brown

    Please allow me to explain further. Yes, it’s true that I am trying to draw attention to my novel. However, I am also responding to the paragraph and a half devoted to praise for “Peter Pan in Scarlet,” so my comment isn’t entirely out of place. I did not claim it as horribly written. Far from it. I’m not disputing, and am happy for, Ms. McCaughrean’s prolific success. Precisely why I expressed my displeasure. I would imagine that an accomplished writer would have paid closer attention to the details of a fellow author’s work. My objections to her Pan story are not aesthetic. As I mentioned, I’m charmed by and applaud it in places. Such as Starkey’s return and the Underground House tree rising up since no one saws it each day. The issue is fact-checking. Another example: McCaughrean states that Peter Pan went back to his mother’s window only once. Barrie clearly mentions two visits. Perhaps I am too much of a purist. But I don’t consider that a fault when continuing a classic work in the same medium. When I completed my book, I had no intention to publish. I wrote out of compulsion upon finding Barrie’s ideas for more. As the Centennial of Pan approached, I dusted it off and tried my luck. At first luck smiled. An agent with Sterling Lord Literistic deemed it brilliant and fought to see it produced. Little, Brown and Company showed interest. However, the complex proceedings regarding Peter Pan at the time rendered publication impossible. Even with the connections of Sterling Lord himself. When the “official” sequel emerged, I quickly became disenchanted. Once able, I ventured forth again. After more submitting and much deliberation, I decided Lulu to be the best option for this particular novel. A “special case,” as it were, like Peter Pan. I wanted to provide an adventure derived from Barrie. I fully understand and appreciate the clout and achievement of hooking an agent with a query letter and landing a “real” publisher. I thank you for your well wishes, as I am gearing up to pitch an original novel via the proper channels. Good luck in your endeavors as well. And thank you for allowing me to present my viewpoint.

  2. Ben

    Mr. Von Brown. Your shameless plug is totally inappropriate for this discussion. This is an article about Ms. McCaughrean’s novels and you use it as a sad excuse to plug your own attempt at a novel, that one of her other books is horribly written and that people should purchase your vanity press book instead. That’s just pitiful and desperate. Really, haven’t you ever heard the saying that “you don’t have to blow out my candle to make yours glow brighter”? Evidently not. I wish you luck in your career as a writer, but moreso I wish you the humility to realize that you don’t have to insult excellent authors in order to sell your unpublished novel (really, lulu.com is not a publisher…it’s a self-publisher, i.e., for those authors who can’t get their books published for real. That’s not to say that there aren’t good books “published” by them, just that they’re not a “real” publisher).

  3. Peter Von Brown

    As an author, I had been put off by “Peter Pan in Scarlet.” Though I really enjoyed some parts, I am upset that Geraldine McCaughrean has many mistakes in her book as compared to Sir J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan stories. For an official sequel, even one discrepancy is too many. A notable error is the idea that one cannot fly without one’s shadow. If that were true, then Peter could not have flown back to the Darling’s home to fetch it. I’d like to present my novel “Peter Pan’s NeverWorld” as an alternative. I wrote it back in 1993 for an Honors Project after my Independent Study of Barrie (for college credit) led me to his notes for more Pan adventure. I remained faithful. You can find my announcement page and more info at http://www.peterpansneverworld.com. I invite you to discover Peter Pan’s brother Michael…

  4. Mary Burkey

    And for another great experience, listen to the audiobook of A Pack of Lies from BBC Audiobooks America, brilliantly narrated by Andrew Sachs (Manuel from Faulty Towers as you’ve never heard him before!)

  5. Carin at B&T

    We always try to correct the feeds from publishers when we can! I submitted the spelling correction. On TS3, on the detail screen, at the bottom there’s a link to let us (B&T) know about an error. We always appreciate the head’s up!

  6. REBECCA TAYLOR

    Advice to anyone else out there who is entirely sold by Alison’s description and goes to search for the new paperback edition: for best results, don’t use “McCaughrean” in your keyword search. I must report with appalled and bemused interest that Baker & Taylor and Barnes & Noble both list the author’s surname for the new paperback edtion of A pack of lies as “Mccoughrean.” Amazon blithely lists joint authorship as “Geraldine Mccoughrean and Geraldine McCaughrean”, so the correct spelling at least does work. Ingram triumphs this time as the sole bastion of correct authority control.

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