Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No; it’s something else entirely.
Publisher: Hutchinson (Random House)
First Published: 7th February 2013
Date Reviewed: 11th March 2015
Calamity Leek lives with her ‘sisters’ in Mother’s garden. It’s mainly aunty who looks after them. They have lovely furs to wear, work in the garden, and gain an excellent education. Oh, and they are being trained to fight and sleep on straw. Calamity is reaching the age where she’ll be sent off to war, but one day sister Truly decides to climb The Wall. Nothing will be the same again.
Let’s get this out of the way – The First Book Of Calamity Leek is not a book about books. The title relates to the way in which Calamity must think through her life and come to terms with everything that does not align with what she’s read in her aunty’s appendix. What Lichtarowicz’s book actually is is a very strange, silly-sounding but surprising story.
The writing style is odd. Calamity talks strangely, a particular sort of childish language; uppity, almost. So odd is it, that’s it very possible you’re going to read a few pages and want to move on to something better. (It’s also strangely humorous, both naturally and in that way children can be when you know you shouldn’t be laughing.) Calamity can be irritating, obnoxious, a bit of a pain when compared to her sisters. The truth is that even if you persevere it’s going to take quite a while before you become used to it as well as understand it all.
Understanding. There are two schools of thought here. One is that Lichtarowicz is a genius, that the way she lures you into considerations of a bizarre fantasy world is wonderful. The other is that the subject has been handled in a way you may not find comfortable. Is this a book about pigs living in a barn, about animals? Is it about children? Perhaps it is about birds? Fairies? Ghosts? Suffice to say the confusion, alongside the oddity, is likely going to put you off. Upon working it out you may want to flick through the previous pages.
References to modern media abound to confuse you further. Aunty’s actress days ensure plenty of singalongs: Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Grease, and a nod to The Phantom Of The Opera. Whether these were designed to confuse or whether they suggest something more is never explained, but there is plenty to wonder about. The children watch show-reels to learn about men, videos wherein aunty is, to the reader at least, acting in various musicals; they’re are taught that these are real events, or that at least they represent the reality of aunty’s life.
There is much that can be said as to the realistic possibility of what happens – in both the past and present sections. Whether Lichtarowicz wanted realism here is not obvious: it’s more than possible that the things that go on, and the reactions that would be frowned upon in reality are based solely on the way Calamity perceives them. At the same time it’s also possible that it’s the result of the adult way of doing things that may not always gel with a child’s understanding, especially not one in Calamity’s state.
The First Book Of Calamity Leek is incredibly odd and difficult to get through. Its narrator is irritating and it takes a long time until you realise exactly why. The ending is a little ambiguous. This is a book in which you are thrown into a situation with only so much explanation given.
Nevertheless it’s a good book and worth reading. What you discover may shock or surprise you and it will certainly make you consider what you’ve read and the reasons the author has chosen to write the tale the way she has. Calamity is not trustworthy but she’s innocent enough not to realise it and not to see that by reporting what she’s experienced, we will learn the truth.
Give it a go; see what you think. And make time to chew it over afterwards.