Return to Neverland
Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by David Wyatt 275pp, Oxford, £12.99
The official sequel to Peter Pan needs to be an exceptional book, and that's exactly what we have in Peter Pan in Scarlet. From the very first page, only the most stony-hearted, dyed-in-the-wool Peter Pan fan could fail to be charmed by Geraldine McCaughrean's lightness of touch, sureness of writing and sparkling imagination.
When a proof copy of Peter Pan in Scarlet landed on my desk, I intended to have a quick peek before knuckling down to some writing of my own. As it was, I ended up reading the story from beginning to end.
JM Barrie's original 1904 Peter Pan was a play, which took a further seven years to appear in its definitive book form, Peter and Wendy. McCaughrean was chosen to write the sequel from around 200 submissions of sample chapters and synopses, in a competition devised both for publicity and financial reasons. In the UK, Peter Pan goes out of copyright in 2007 and the royalties that Barrie's creation has generated for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children will cease overnight. By splitting the royalties for Peter Pan in Scarlet between author and hospital, it's hoped that Pan will continue to help sick children. For this reason alone, it would be understandable if Great Ormond Street had gone for giltzy, mass-market appeal. Instead, they have chosen a more sophisticated and subtle approach: a book of timeless charm. This truly commendable decision was probably made easier by the fact that McCaughrean's submission must have blown even its closest rival out of the water. Books such as this are as rare as fairy dust.
McCaughrean has been quoted as saying that she had to undo a few knots that Barrie had "cast off so very absolutely", but they have been undone very nimbly by a consummate professional. The play originally ended with the Darling children returning from Neverland to their nursery and to bed. Then, one February evening in 1908, an epilogue was performed: "An Afterthought". In it, Wendy has grown up and has a daughter of her own, named Jane. It is Jane, not Wendy, who then flies to Neverland. The epilogue also reveals the fate of the Lost Boys who came back to England with the Darlings, the men they came to be. These adult episodes later made their way into Peter and Wendy, the novel.
McCaughrean could have chosen to disregard this afterthought, but instead, she has embraced it, making the Lost Boys the Old Boys and sticking to the careers Barrie gave them ... but she then has to make them boys again, and find a way of returning them to Neverland with Wendy. Judge Tootles somehow ends up a girl in the process, and it movingly transpires that Michael Darling was killed in the first world war (as was the real-life George Llewelyn Davies, the eldest of the brothers to whom Barrie told the original stories). Then there is the matter of Captain Hook, who - as a requirement of the Great Ormond Street competition - is not quite so dead after all.
The book is exciting and funny, with some very dark corners, though less casually violent than its predecessor, and it is all wrapped up in McCaughrean's wonderfully inventive language. The main themes involve clothes making the man - or in this case the boy - and in a very dangerous manner (in a story strand expanded from a paragraph near the close of Barrie's novel); and the fact that, like Holmes and Moriarty, Pan needs Hook and vice versa.
Without there being even the faintest whiff of pastiche, McCaughrean has created a sequel so similar in tone and flavour to the original that they make a perfect matching pair. This is an extraordinary achievement.
A question which will, inevitably, be asked is whether this is more an adult than a children's book. The answer depends entirely on how you perceive the original Peter Pan, the two being so inexorably entwined. What McCaughrean has done is nothing short of miraculous. It's enough to make you believe in fairies.
This article first appeared in The Guardian.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006