It is said that you should never judge a book by its cover – but that is exactly what I did with The Undrowned Child. I’m not sure whether it was the title or the image which caught my eye – I think it may have been the title more, but only just. I love quirky, almost indecipherable lines of text – not ones which alienate you with their pomposity, but ones that are intriguing or slightly off-kilter, a phrase which invites exploration and discovery. It makes me want the book to be similarly skew-whiff, full of strange happenings in strange places, a world which is recognisable yet disconcertingly different. This is what I hoped would be the world of The Undrowned Child and was, in part, what I got.
The imagery on the front cover only added to my entrapment – suggesting a dreamy mix of the water babies and a magical Venice (if Venice could be any more magical than it already is!). But it was the description on the dust jacket which sealed it for me, it excited my childish imagination and I just had to read the book:-
It’s the beginning of the 20th century; the age of scientific progress. But for Venice the future looks bleak. A conference of scientists assembles to address the problems, among whose delegates are the parents of eleven-year-old Teodora. Within days of her arrival, she is subsumed into the secret life of Venice: a world in which salty-tongued mermaids run subversive printing presses, ghosts good and bad patrol the streets and librarians turn fluidly into cats. A battle against forces determined to destroy the city once and for all quickly ensues. Only Teo, the undrowned child who survived a tragic accident as a baby, can go ‘between-the-linings’ to subvert evil and restore order.
The book itself is a strange mix of fact and fiction (the facts of the story are actually highlighted at the back of the book) and most of the time they fit together quite well, only occasionally did they feel a bit jarring and shoe-horned into the story. As for it being a children’s book, I felt it was a little too involved and convoluted to appeal to children, although I may be wrong there.
I don’t really want to tell you the story, I’m sure there’s plenty of Amazon reviewers who will do that for you. As an adult reading this book I really loved it to start with, but it soon felt a little too contrived and by the last third of the book I was really struggling (by the way, at about 300 pages it is quite big for a children’s book). The story is set in 1899, but there is nothing in the text which clearly puts this across, it could have been set yesterday and although there was a sense of place, there certainly was not a sense of time. The two main characters, a young boy called Lorenzo and a girl (the undrowned child of the title – you’ll have to read the book to find out why!) called Teodora, are described fleetingly as are their clothes, which is about the only reference we get to the decade the story is set in. There is also a magic book which is virtually a character in its own right, although I didn’t find its magic particularly convincing – there was something about it which gave the impression it was more connected to the internet than the spirit world, it certainly didn’t feel magical. This, and a cure-all ointment, felt too convenient a way of getting out of fixes to be believable and detracted from the story as a whole.
The story plodded on quite well but seemed to lack urgency, even when it was required. At the end of the book there was an almighty battle which dragged on and on, but long before it got started I wanted it all wrapped up and finished. Long before the battle I had already begun to think of what I wanted to read next. This was a real shame because the book possessed great potential and had, at least at the beginning, the makings of a wonderful children’s tale. If only the author had received the guidance of a good editor, one who had the guts to trim it by at least a third – if so, it may well have become a classic.