I have to say, in the first instance, I was drawn to this book (when all I knew about it was its existence) because its author is the lead singer of The Decemberists (a band, strangely enough, I’ve always liked the idea of more than the actuality). When you see the book, however, when you see that it is in some respects a joint project between the husband and wife team of Meloy and illustrator Carson Ellis, when you weigh it in your hands and feel how damn hefty the thing is (it clocks in at over 500 pages), you quickly see that this is not some Ethan Hawke style vanity project.
Wildwood tells the story of Prue McKeel who lives with her parents and her younger brother Mac, in Portland Oregon, on the edge of what locals call the Impassable Wilderness. When a murder of crows swoops her brother away, Prue is forced to give chase – and into the Wilderness she goes, with a sort of not really friend from school called Curtis. What ensues is a little bit His Dark Materials, a little bit Narnia, a little bit Dave Eggers’ Where the Wild Things Are and a little bit Magnus Mills. Quickly split, Prue and Curtis make their own way through the strange new world they’ve encountered, Curtis in the company of a coyote army led by a woman known as the Dowager Governess (think the Ice Queen from The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe by way of Philip Pullman’s Marisa Coulter) and Prue… well, Prue travels in the company of a sweet old postman, a vast array of birds and an outlaw troupe, among others.
Of course the kidnapping of a child is merely the tip of the iceberg and it isn’t long before both Prue and Curtis realise that the world they have found, composed of a South Wood, a North Wood and the eponymous Wild Wood, is a world on the cusp of unruly civil war. Like Roald Dahl, Meloy isn’t afraid of adding in a bit of nightmarish jeopardy to proceedings (certain characters die and certain characters, particularly Mac, are threatened with terrible fates). What’s more, each chapter is filled with just enough twists and new ingredients to always ensure that you find yourself craning over the shoulder of the characters themselves to take more of the world in. But that isn’t all, because you also have Carson Ellis’ lovely illustrations, which range from maps and small pictures (such as the radio flyer that opens chapter one) to full page black and white drawings and, on occasion, full page colour drawings (which reminded me of encyclopaedias I had as a kid, where you had lovely smooth pages illustrated on one side and blank on another).
Like all great novels, Wild Wood has you casting around for the dozen or so books that are quite like it – but you cast around so freely because the actual reading experience itself is so pleasurable. Like Lemony Snicket’s books (some of which have been illustrated by Carson Ellis), this feels like a book adults could read if they wanted to be transported back to what turned them on to reading in the first place – or a book they could happily give to their older children. I would imagine it would be immensely satisfying to both audiences. It certainly was to me.
Any Cop?: Apparently this is the first book of the Wild Wood Chronicles. On the basis of this, I can’t wait for the next instalment.