|cover design: Suzi Ovens|
I was lucky enough to see an early draft of some chapters, because Karina wanted to know my opinion - I was a little nervous, in case it wasn't good, but I was able to give her a double thumbs up with complete enthusiasm. She has very sweetly given me a 'thank you' on one of the opening pages, which is rather thrilling! Ok, now onto the book itself - I just wanted to lay all that before you, so you'd know in advance my connection to Shrinking Violet. But I hope you know me well enough to know that I wouldn't say it was great if I didn't believe it. But I will be calling the author 'Karina' rather than 'Lickorish Quinn', because I've known her for seven years, and it would feel odd to call her anything except Karina.
Shrinking Violet could have been written to my requirements, so perfect is it for my taste. It's a quirky, slightly surreal but not macabre, novella about Oxford - and it's heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll's Alice (as I will discuss later). I also detected a lot of similarities with Barbara Comyns' Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (one of my favourite books) but I know they were coincidences, since Karina didn't read the Comyns novel until after she finished writing the book. I love a quirky domestic setting, and I was drawn in by the lovely description of Violet's house...
It was true that it was a most impractical house. Violet’s family lived in a higgledy-piggledy house with seven floors, because no two rooms were level, but each was connected by a set of stairs to the other. The house was also full of doors here and there of all shapes and sizes leading to cupboards and passages or to nowhere at all. There was not a single right angle in it. Under every piece of furniture was wedged a notebook or a folded handkerchief to stop them from wobbling on the uneven floors. Every breakable object was stuck down with glue or adhesive tape. Not even the pictures on the walls could be balanced in such a way as to hang straight.Violet herself is an inquisitive young girl as the story starts, short for her age and with an unusual perspective on life. Karina captures really well the disjointed nature of a child's view - a determination to read some sort of logic into any scenario, alongside the readiness to accept or imagine anything. Violet can be quite literal in her understanding of what people say, but lends her own enchanting interpretations to the world around her:
“What I do not understand,” Violet had said “Is that when you tell me I have eleven apples and to take five away, you do not tell me where those five apples should go.”
Her teacher had given her five minutes standing out in the cloisters for that remark. Violet did not very much fancy the idea of standing out in the cloisters today, so when she was told she had five goats and she should take three away, rather than asking her teacher where she should put the three goats, she used her own initiative and sent them to wait in the quad with the other animals that were swimming and paddling there. I am very sorry to have to send you out, she explained to the goats. But you see my teacher does not have time for my questions and you know you cannot stay in the classroom, unless you want to do some sums, and I am afraid there aren’t any spare desks for you.
Violet sighed as she turned the page to find that every question involved the taking away of a certain number of elephants and cats and ferrets from a larger group of elephants and cats and ferrets, so that very soon the quad was filled with her cast away creatures.Onto that Alice mention I made earlier. Karina uses the legacy of Alice very cleverly. It isn't intended to be a subtle background reference once or twice - it swirls and unfurls throughout Shrinking Violet, like the flood which carried the knitting sheep, perhaps. Karina's novel isn't a sequel to or a retelling of Carroll's Alice, but it could perhaps be found in the same universe. The influence threads through the minutiae of the novel - there are mentions of a Dodo, jam tarts, pocket-watches, chess - but it is the feel of Shrinking Violet which truly unites the two. Where Carroll's books have their own curious anti-logic, Karina takes on the surreality of Alice, but mostly in Violet's unusual view of the world, rather than that world itself. The narrative slips into the little girl's imagination, so that her curious conclusions and conversations with the inanimate sometimes seem to be coming true, but this simply indicates the vividness of the world she inhabits and creates. As she grows older (and taller - like Alice, her height suddenly increases, although it doesn't oscillate...) the world around her becomes less fantastic, but the tone never loses its wonderful surreal qualities - but a surrealism rooted in the domestic. The events of the novel could certainly happen - a school day, a wedding, a funeral - but they take on their own peculiar, touching, curious character through Violet's eyes and Karina's words.
One of the stylistic traits which Karina uses wonderfully is the off-balance end to sentence or paragraph, often adding a little pathos to a quirky character or, alternatively, adding an unusual twist to an otherwise grounded section. Here is an example of the former:
Aunt Dora was rarely awake and even then, barely. It was often said of her that she could sleep anywhere and did. When she was young she had found it impossible to sleep in silent or solitary places and so had paid to visit museums, watch films and take train journeys just to sleep where there would be noise and crowds. She had slept through an opera, a circus show and a riot. None of her family knew this about her because she saw it as a rather sordid secret. Her friends did not know it because she did not have any friends.This pathos comes most affectingly with Violet's grandfather Julius. To my mind, he is the most delightful character in Shrinking Violet. Somehow he is both eccentric and straight-talking. He doesn't beat about the bush, but his world is almost as fanciful as the infant Violet's. He once wrote a great novel, but now writes haiku on bits of paper and leaves them around the house. His interactions with the everyday world - with his granddaughter's wedding, or his wife's illness - are fragmented and uncertain, but he is still in control of his personality and his opinions. He's a fascinating character - and it is with him and Violet's relationship with him that the sadder, more serious undertones of the novel come to light.
For a short novel, an awful lot is packed in - but, unlike a lot of first novels, I didn't feel that Karina was trying to put too much in. There is a definite unity to Shrinking Violet, in terms of style and tone, which suggests a much more experienced novelist. Perhaps it is not entirely clear how Karina will write when detached from the deliberate influence of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but I think her ability to depict the quirky alongside the moving can be transferred to her next book, without the allusions to Alice. I'm looking forward to finding out what happens.
As a friend of Karina's, I want to say "Buy it! Read it! Blog about it! Tell your friends!", but as a reader of books, I need no sort of nepotism simply to say "Buy it! Read it!" It's a really wonderful little book, and I'm proud to have any connection with it - Karina is a talented and imaginative writer, Violet is a wonderful character, and Shrinking Violet is a joyous, eccentric, thoughtful little beauty of a book.