The Nosy Crow reading group book this month was Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell. Winner of the Blue Peter Award and of the 5-12 category and overall Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, this was a particularly popular read for the group. We all commented on the quality of the writing – and it’s a style packed with aphorism, imagery, metaphor and simile, so it’s a very “visible” style.
This blog post contains plot-spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
While a few of us found that some of the similes and metaphors just didn’t work (“The ceiling was a maze of glass and bright iron. It looked like a hundred pianos.” Though it’s worth saying that, on looking up at a station ceiling today my older child said that she thought that it referred to the white sky divided into strips by black iron looking like piano keyboards on top of one another, and she may be right…), and that Charles’s constant aphorisms were a bit wearing, all of us responded to the richness and beauty of the language of the book: my own favourite lyrical Charlesism is his declaration of paternal love to Sophie: “You have been the great green adventure of my life. Without you, my days would be unlit.”
We also, though, talked about some of the observed detail – the description of the London house, for example, and, for me, the description of Matteo’s improvised equipment: “ was sewn with layer upon layer of pigeon feathers. It was oddly greasy, but beautiful.” And we all agreed that food, from teeth-gluing jammy biscuits to a sausage sandwiched in venison with a slop of boiled-down tomato and cream soup sauce, was brilliantly described.
Pretty much every woman in the room had a bit of a crush on Charles at the end, and at least one of us felt jealous of Katherine for creating him. Several of us thought that Benedict Cumberbatch would be pretty good casting (Tom held out for Bill Nighy, but I am doubtful that, these days, he’d be up for the drainpipe climb at the end of the book, myself). He was, we felt, the “perfect parent”, at least from the point of view of the 9-12 year-old target reader, encouraging independence, spirit and fearlessness in Sophie. Though some of the mums in the room voiced some concerns at the degree of freedom and secrecy that he allowed Sophie (“As long as you aren’t doing anything too extravagantly illegal I am happy for you to have secrets”), most of us were willing to accept this as part of a more general lack of naturalism in the novel. Sophie herself, now I think about it, came in for relatively little discussion, thought there was quite a lively argument about what “lightning coloured hair” would look like, and questions were asked about eyes like candle flames. We did talk about Sophie’s emotional journey – or lack of one. One of us said that her journey was to become more fully the person she had been pretty much from the beginning. Another felt that her journey was the validation of her memories of her mother. Some of us couldn’t quite feel the intensity of her longing for her mother, and at least one of us suggested that this was because the language, and in particular the way that characters expressed themselves in aphorisms, kept the reader at a kind of distance from all of them – though, having said that, some of us admitted to crying at the end. One of us suggested that this distance was the result of a rather English use of understatement and humour, and drew parallels with Richard Curtis films, in which emotional moments are often undercut with humour. And this is a funny book: my own favourite Charles aphorism is, “I am an Englishman. I always have an umbrella. I would no more go out without my umbrella than I would leave the house without my small intestine.”
Other than Charles and Sophie, characters were, we felt, rather less rounded, including the Rooftoppers themselves, and some of us felt that we might have met them before in other books under other names. In fact, and this links to a plot point below, a few of us felt that the plot might have been enhanced by the death of one of them, and we thought that Safi was the most expendable.
Time and Place
We were all rather intrigued by the “no-time” setting of the novel. On the one hand, the book sets itself up as historical fiction – girls can’t wear trousers, orchestras play on cross-channel boats, people travel by horse and carriage. But Charles will say some very 21st century things, like, “Even your night-time peeing is accessorised”. As Tom said, it has something of the fin-de-siecle feel of Nights At The Circus. The timelessness of the novel prompted us to talk about the way that we, as lovers of children’s books, felt comfortable in it: it is a very traditional novel in many ways, and one that clearly positions itself in a tradition – particularly a British tradition – of children’s novels. We were reminded of Ballet Shoes (Charles is Gum, and Sophie a Fossil who didn’t make it back to the Cromwell Road but continued to travel with him), Stig of the Dump, I Capture The Castle and more modern books still operating within that tradition like Hugo Cabret and Ink Heart. There is something about the romance of the characters and the register of the language that gives the book something of a nostalgic, even old-fashioned, feel – in, we agreed, a good way… though I wondered if something about this tradition might be off-puttingly posh for some children. The teachers in the room, though, said that, having shared the book with children from a range of backgrounds, this wasn’t the case.
We also talked about place. We all loved the description of the London house, which felt the most real place to us. Some of us felt that Paris was evoked wonderfully well, while others felt that the novel’s sense of place rather drifted in Paris. The discussion about Paris, though, led us to talk about roofs as a setting. We talked about the way that the ceiling is a “magical boundary” between one world and another – a kind of high, horizontal wardrobe-back into the rooftop Narnia.
Plot and Structure
None of us found this book hard-going, and several of us commented on how much of a page-turner it was. In fact, some of us felt it was all a bit TOO pacey, and that the ending in particular was a bit rushed. Some of us wanted, simply, more – a more completely realised and detailed world, like, one of us suggested, Lyra’s Oxford – and those of us who specified what that more might be said they wanted more of an obstacle to the climactic encounter between Sophie and her mother – perhaps the police found them in the building when they were going through the files, perhaps there was more about the clash with the gariers. Some of us wanted more resolution to the mystery of the mother’s identity (and some of us wanted to know why she hadn’t sought out Sophie with the dedication that her daughter had sought out her) and the question of the insurance fraud. Some of us felt that “Charles should have been enough”, and that Sophie’s drive to find her mother, though often described, didn’t quite feel true. Others were comfortable with the plot devices – even Charles’s sudden revelation of climbing skills – that facilitated what was, for them, a moving culmination of Sophie’s quest. A couple pondered whether there might have been a different ending, in which Sophie didn’t find her mother, accepted her memory was a fantasy and that Charles was her true parent. Some of us drew parallels between what the reader was asked to believe was possible and the comments that Charles made about the importance of never discounting anything that might be possible.
A lot of us spoke about being willing to suspend disbelief, and to enter into the romantic world of the book without asking too many questions. Though the book doesn’t conform to the magical realism genre, several of us drew comparisons with the way in which a reader accepts the bizarre in the context of magical realist fiction and accepts the bizarre here, as one of us said, “One bit of my brain was saying, this is ridiculous, but the other was accepting it all.”
So, though we thought that the book was stronger on style (“magical and erudite”) than plot (one of the more arithmetically-minded of us said that the first 75% was perfect, the last 1% was perfect and the 24% in between was too compressed), and though some of us admitted to envy of the author (clever, attractive, prize-winning) and having to overcome a contrary prejudice against a novel that everyone else was praising, pretty much all of us started the discussion by saying we loved Rooftoppers, and at the end agreed that our enjoyment of the novel had survived the unpicking of it that a critical discussion involves. Unlike many of the books we discussed, we were pretty confident children aged 8-12 would enjoy it, and that’s not something we can say of all the novels for that age-group that we’ve discussed. And the teachers in the room said that the children they’d shared the book with had enjoyed it, several of them selecting it as their favourite book (though they had had the advantage of meeting the author, who’d visited the school). Many of us would reread it, and most would recommend it. I, for one, would have been proud to publish it, for the distinctiveness of the authorial voice alone.