Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Review of Sylvie and the Songman by Tim Binding

Sylvie and the Songman begins in the real world, which is then subtly transformed into a surreal place. Sylvie Bertram lives with her father just outside London. He plays bassoon in a London orchestra; he also builds strange instruments and composes music for them in a shed in the backyard. He is trying to recreate the songs of the natural world, especially animals, with his Furroughla, Shinglechord, Featherblow, and Clattercloud. And perhaps he is trying to forget his wife, who was taken by the waves at Durdle Door three years earlier.

Now Sylvie's old dog Mr. Jackson can't bark, and she begins noticing that other animals seem to have lost their voices. With Sylvie's help, her father's bizarre instruments sound a terrifying new note. A fox is watching her pass by on the train, the usual people riding the train are peering at Sylvie and making sly remarks, and there are fifteen green-and-red woodpeckers lined up on a telephone wire. When her father disappears, Sylvie goes on the run with her solid, kite-building friend George, who takes some convincing to join her.

In some books, you feel like you're standing at a distance, like the fox watching Sylvie go by on a train. Other books put you on the train, right there in the car with Sylvie, wondering why the woman in the kid gloves has just taken out an egg-shaped drum and is playing it with her knitting needles, why the man with the cane has turned his cane into two drumsticks and is playing a drum, too.

The backyard shed has been robbed. All of the instruments are gone. Overhead, the Woodpecker Man sails by in his balloon drawn by black swans. And the tiger is the only animal in the zoo that hasn't lost its voice.

Tim Binding uses language beautifully. He creates a tone of mythic horror and suspense without trying too hard to be horrific. For example, after Sylvie finds a metal wand in the garden, she and George watch to see if someone will come looking for it. Later that night, someone does, and they realize that the wand is meant to strike a musical instrument, the triangle:
The Woodpecker Man began to sweep the triangle back and forth over the garden, like a water diviner searching for a hidden spring. They could see his face now, drawn and sharp, with sunken cheeks between a long pointed nose and thin, bloodless lips that seemed to be muttering to an invisible companion. Slowly he hopped forward, his fingers curled tightly round the triangle's base, the woodpeckers fluttering in his wake. As he passed the triangle across the back of the house, it began to twitch. The Woodpecker Man froze and slowly raised his head. Holding it at arm's length, he licked a finger and ran it lightly over the three sides. There was a low humming in the air. On the bedside table the wand began to vibrate, as if someone had switched on a little battery inside it. The Woodpecker Man stared up at their window, took off his hat, brushed it with his arm and bowed. George pulled Sylvie back, frightened.
A few minutes later:
The kitchen door was scraped open. There was a fluttery whoomph in the air, like the sound of a train plunging into a tunnel, fast and feathery. Something fell onto the kitchen floor—a mug or a plate—then a whole sideboard full seemed to smash to the ground. The air below was filled with beating wings. The wand began to buzz again, as if sending out a signal. Sylvie ran across the room.
"He know it's here. Quick, George, the trapdoor, before they find their way up."
George scrambled over, and together they began to pull on the rope. Below, they could hear the Woodpecker Man hopping through the room, and the scratch of birds' feet as they followed him down the corridor towards the stairs.
Another intriguing aspect of the book is that even when a human can understand what animals are saying, the "words" are appropriately alien, an odd kind of poetry. For example, the fox tells Sylvie,
You gloamcub
I teeth you I blood the ground
We pad paw we snout the trotting ground
We leg the mufflesongs
I was not surprised to learn that Tim Binding had written two adult novels before writing this one. Sylvie and the Songman is definitely for children, but it is eerie and thought-provoking and rich, much more literary than some of the newer children's books that read like Saturday morning cartoons. The kid who will curl up in a quiet place with this book and luxuriate in Sylvie's adventures will never feel the same about music—or animal songs—again.

Note for Worried Parents: The villain mistreats animals in this book, and at least one animal dies. But these events are completely contextual and poignant, followed by the ultimate defeat of said villain.

Update: Someone just sent me this video of a musical instrument/engineering feat that reminds me of Sylvie's father's marvelous musical contraptions. Although apparently it's an animation, it does tie in nicely with the book!


Doret said...

I just reviewed this book. Loved it. The WoodPecker Man was so creepy. I wish I could've mentioned Allamanda but I knew I couldn't do it justice. Its something readers must find on their own. Loved when George got rhythm.
Its simply a lovely read all around. A great book to get lost in.

Kate Coombs said...

I felt the same way about the Allamanda! I'll look for your review, thanks.

Charlotte said...

Hi Kate,

I just reviewed this one too, and although I liked lots of it lots, I had a huge problem with it, which is spoilerish....

The Woodpecker Man and the Drummers are such great villains that I was very disapointed when they went offstage for no good reason. Who were they? Why were they? What happened to them in the end?

I'm leaving the same comment for Doret!

Kate Coombs said...

Charlotte--Good point! They were VERY cool, and the author had a little trouble wrapping up the villain situation, although I did like the tiger.