Penelope Farmer is best known for Charlotte Sometimes, a book that inspired The Cure to dawdle gothick chords around it for a song of the same name. (They also wandered a Victorian boarding school in the video, with the curious vacant malaise most of us only get in Morrisons, but which early 80s popstars mustered whenever a camera appeared.) There’s something quite indie about Ms Farmer: her books shoegaze with the best of them.
Head soundly lagged to dull an ear-ache, I’ve just sped through 1974’s A Castle of Bone. It’s the perfect state to imbibe something like this. There’s a wardrobe that returns things to a former state (and so, when a wallet is lost inside, it returns as the sow that leant it her leather). A fifty-fathoms-deep Greek myth is there too, winding around two sets of brothers and sisters with a perplexity of which Alan Garner would be proud. For a book aimed at ‘young adults’ the psychological detail is intense, and it’s the work unpicking this that makes her books repel any prejudice against fantasy novels.
Like the better examples, A Castle of Bone unsettles by releasing unease into a complacent, everyday world. Here are insolent shopgirls, junk shops plastered with posters for a band called ‘The Stoned Crows’, unliberated 70s housewife/mothers whose children are made awkward by cooler, hipper versions driving battered Renaults in ‘magpie’ clothes. It could be comical, but it’s eery; and as Farmer shuffles the seven ages of life she warns darkly of the shadows of adulthood.