I’m unapologetic about the fact that my favourite book is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a book that has fascinated me since I was a small child. Magical stories, or at least narratives in which the tyranny of reality is overthrown or subverted, have fascinated me since. At different stages in my childhood and adolescence I read such fiction to the exclusion of almost everything else. In my teens and twenties, intoxicated by the rhetoric of the bygone European avant-garde, I dismissed realism as an innately reactionary way of presenting the world, and although now (in my forties) I can see that my anti-realism was ill-informed and quaint, my predilection for the bizarre, the mythical and the surreal remains. Kneel Downe’s books satisfy that craving, and An Owl’s Tale does so in a particularly idiosyncratic way.
The book is a collection of mythopoeic tales, told by Owl to a little girl called Amelia, who makes significant appearances elsewhere in Kneel’s work. The framing device of Owl’s narration allows the reader to sit at the author’s knee and accept each magical story in the same way that a young child accepts Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. This is a children’s book for adults, and it makes an enchanting alternative to the conventions of story-telling we accept as the norm when we are beset by mortgages, career ambitions, money worries, responsibilities. The language of An Owl’s Tale is artfully archaic, full of syntactic inversions and olde worlde vocabulary, but at the same time it is terse and punchy. Take this example, from “The River That Fell in Love with the Sea”:
Slipped the seasons and cold came unto the world…
And her back turned harsh and white.
But beneath she endured.
Grain by grain…
This style looks at first like an acquired taste, but the fluidity and confidence of Kneel’s writing carries the reader along, and the stories quickly become accessible and engaging. The book taps into ancient story-telling traditions that we greet with a smile of recognition when they manifest as “The Wolf Who Lost His Reflection” or “The Prince Without a Throne.”
The best children’s books are objects of beauty, with windows to other worlds in the form of illustrations. An Owl’s Tale offers its adult readers the same aesthetic joy, thanks to Susan Omand’s elegant ink drawings, which introduce each tale. The combination of Susan’s pictures and Kneel’s words is powerful and exciting.
If you love traditional tales and myths or are fascinated by the act of story-telling, you should buy this book.