Ever

In the same spirit of seasonal sentimentality, I reread Gail Carson Levine’s least popular fantasy novel. I had bought my copy from one of those mail-order catalogues my primary school used to hand out – what an era – but I had found the prose too different from her other books to give it more than a perfunctory skim.

Last year, I made a conscious effort to read more books by non-Anglo-American authors. And remembering that Ever was heavily inspired by ancient Mesopotamian myths and texts, I impulsively gave it another go at 2 a.m.

This time around, the writing wove through my mind seamlessly. Each sentence was simple and succinct, but by no means stiff. Some readers have complained that whenever white authors attempt to emulate foreign voices, they contrive gross caricatures of broken English. While in some cases I would agree, Levine’s language was reasonably reminiscent of Pritchard’s anthologies of ancient Near Eastern texts. And regardless of authenticity, the prose was perfectly fluent, lush even, and conveyed lucid Mesopotamian landscapes without the crutch of verbosity.

The plot itself was not exactly impressive, nor were the mythical ordeals empathy-inducing. The romance was heartwarming fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Yet the unexpectedly ambitious themes warrant a full review. Ever was the first novel I had read (well, skimmed) that attempted to navigate the tricky, easily stuffy theological realm. Kezi was raised a devout worshipper of Admat, the omnipresent, omniscient god of her country, Hyte. When she meets a very different god in the flesh, she understandably experiences a spiritual crisis.

Through her eyes, Ever deftly traversed some Big Questions: Is there a God? How can we know whether He exists? How can we know whether He is good? Why do we suffer? Must we suffer? As a second-generation Christian, these questions were certainly relatable. But because of its bold subject matter, Ever has also been met with astringent criticism. Disapproving readers have drawn parallels between the seemingly callous, absent Admat and the Judaeo-Christian God; from that angle, Ever may well seem like an attack on the Abrahamic faiths.

Personally, however, I found few theological similarities. Kezi’s religion may be monotheistic, but the sacred text and religious practices contradict Abrahamic teachings too greatly to permit deeper or more serious comparisons. Levine herself said she deliberately distanced the book from the Bible.

Even if young readers were to draw their own parallels, this novel is still an engaging preface to the crossroads every child raised in a religious family will ultimately reach – questioning what they have always been taught to believe. Whether this leads them to their own personal relationship with their god(s) or to disillusionment, formulating your own understanding of your religion is, in my opinion, the only way you can truly believe. So why rule out a book just because you (or your child) might end up disagreeing with some parts of it?

“A mind is like a parachute. It does not work if it is not open.” – Frank Zappa

Rating: 3/5

How to Live Forever

“Remember is the last month,” said Festival.
“Remember’s not a month.”
“Of course it is,” said Festival. “There are twelve months thirty days long and the five days at the end of the year that are left over are called Remember. It’s when we all remember what happened in the past year, all the people who were born and all the people who died. You have to have Remember, otherwise you’d start the next year out of balance.”

Caesar’s calendar may not have had Colin Thompson’s witticisms, but the Romans did found a December Christmas, which more than suffices for a wallow in nostalgia. In this spirit of seasonal sentimentalism, I watched four seasons of Winx Club and reread this childhood gem.

It took me forever and a day to find this book, in part because I only remembered the above quote (I thought it was the cleverest thing as a child). But more maddeningly, Thompson also wrote a picture book with the exact same name – and a remarkably different plot. The picture book is quite well known – the novel, on the other hand, is not even in print anymore (you can buy a secondhand copy for US$170 on Amazon).

What a trip.

When I did find the book, I was surprised by how few people know of it. Essentially every English novel can be found and dissected on Goodreads – the bibliophile’s digital paradise, overflowing with needlessly lengthy reviews and pre-reviews and pre-release-reviews of the most niche books – and only 18 other people have rated How to Live Forever (compared to the 1074 who have rated the picture book).

My surprise was compounded by how well-written it is. For a children’s novelist, Thompson showed surprising restraint. Incongruous expository dialogues were sparse, the obstacles convincing, and the solutions not dei ex machina. The magic made enough sense to keep me invested in the characters’ mortal perils. And most impressively, the quirky details of the magical world were littered dismissively – that is to say, delightfully realistically – throughout the first three quarters of the book, until the protagonist finally caught on and all was explained. An infinitely more engaging introduction to a magical world than most children’s books allow.

Tricked into an alternate reality where books are as large as houses (in fact, they are houses), Peter searches for his father and the fabled Ancient Child with his Caretaker, a girl who was born at the same minute he was and consequently tasked with showing him around. As they journey through each gallery of the living library, readers will discover witty subversions of idioms and clichés, peculiarly disgusting creatures, and a strange abundance of wizened old men of dubious character.

“They live down on gallery two in the Chinese Sixteenth.”
“Don’t you mean the Chinese Quarter?” said Peter.
“No. That would be a quarter of a gallery. This is only a sixteenth.”

Unfortunately, some common pitfalls were still left unfilled. The scenes attempting to heighten the suspense by evoking an emotional response were embarrassingly overdone. Of course, as a child, I was less critical. I did find Peter’s outbursts irritating, but I brushed off his overzealous internal dilemmas as passable ways to raise the stakes. Then again, I was also stuck with other ‘age-appropriate’ books whose authors were often much more uncomprehending of children’s emotional capacities.

Ultimately, How to Live Forever is still a marvellous specimen of a children’s book that does not underestimate children – an increasingly elusive breed. Its wit will be sure to charm even grown readers wanting a light, heartwarming, winter read.

Rating: 4/5