A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine LEngle

My lady was stunned when I told her I’d never read A Wrinkle in Time. I don’t know if this was due to the dearth of audiobooks I experienced as a child, or because A Wrinkle in Time is just not as well known in Britain as it is in America; after all, there are authors I grew up with like Dick King Smith, Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, who my lady hadn’t heard of either. So, under a promise that she’ll read The Dark is Rising, (and maybe the two Weirdstone books as well, I agreed to try out L’Engle’s time series and see what I thought.

Margaret; Meg, Murry’s life is not easy. School is a continual annoyance, and though she has a beautiful and loving mother who's also a gifted scientist, this just throws her own shortcomings into sharp relief. Then there is her youngest brother, five year old genius Charles Wallis, who alternates being incredibly irritating; like when he pretends to be a moron in front of others, and exasperatingly bright, like when he seems to guess what she’s thinking. Then there is the fact that Meg’s father, a famous physicist, hasn't been seen for two years, and everyone, from her principle on down seems to think she should accept that he’s not coming back. On a dark and stormy night however, Meg’s life is about to change. Charles Wallis has made some new friends, and when one of them, the eccentric old Mrs Whatsit comes calling, this kicks off a range of events that will see Meg, Charles and Meg’s friend Calvin catapulted across the universe, seeing things more wonderful and terrible than they could have dreamed of, engaged on a planet hopping odyssey in search of Meg’s father, and Meg will ultimately find that the things which make her life so difficult, might just prove to be her salvation.

The first thing which struck me about A Wrinkle in Time is something for which it’s earned a lot of praise, and that is just how real Meg feels. Where some books aimed at children either make their protagonists almost entirely blank slates with few distinguishing features, or unrealistic paragons of virtue, it becomes absolutely clear right from the start that Meg is as complex, flawed, and both as endearing and and exasperating as any thirteen year old could be. Her occasional histrionics, her impatience with misunderstanding teachers and fellow students, even her exasperation with her hair, felt extremely believable. Yet, L’Engle manages to stay on the right side of whiny, and make both Meg’s weaknesses and strengths well balanced, albeit Meg doesn’t see them that way. Indeed, Meg’s ability with mathematics and her frustration at being made to do problems a specific way brings back a lot of my own memories of school, when I’d constantly be asked to “show my working”, in maths, and would much rather have simply thought out the right answer in my head.

Many people praise L’Engle for writing a children’s science fantasy novel with a female protagonist, especially at a time when female main characters were something of a rarity, even in adult science fiction. However, historically significant though this detail might be, for me, it’s Meg’s three dimensional ordinariness, rather than her gender which makes her unique, especially when set against the rest of the cast.

There are two prevailing opinions about Meg’s brother Charles Wallis, which pretty much cover both ends of the spectrum as far as wunderkinds in fiction are concerned, people either find him utterly captivating, or the literary equivalent of sandpaper underwear. For myself I found him both at different points, which is I imagine what L’Engle intended, indeed I liked the way that L’Engle chose to have the child with the special gifts, be the main character’s brother, rather than the main character herself. My only personal problem with Charles Wallis (apart from his clunky, never shortened, double-barrelled name), is the way that for most of the book, he always knows more of what is going on than Meg, and constantly forces her to play catchup, this combined with the fact that there are already three fantastically quirky mentors who serve as the children’s guides to the universe, did feel as if Meg was being pushed into the background a bit too much, albeit L’Engle insured that Charles Wallis’ arrogance does get him into trouble along the way, and provide one of the book’s major obstacles.

The third member of the cast, Meg’s friend Calvin O’Keefe is that rare and wonderful thing, just a plain nice guy. While I was initially a little wary given that Meg constantly rhapsodies about Calvin being one of the top school students, and an athlete, and popular, at the same time it’s made clear Calvin has both some quite real issues, and that his gifts complement, rather than outshine Meg’s, indeed while it’s patently obvious even without the family tree at the start of the book that Calvin and Meg will grow up and eventually marry, the way they serve as two friends who round each other out here makes this feel believable, if a little trite, indeed where Meg being rather overshadowed by her brother did get slightly irksome, I actually liked how much Calvin played the calm voice of reason, and Meg’s principle source of support. My only minor issue with Calvin, is the way that, within seconds, he goes from a casual school acquaintance who Meg had rarely spoken to and was a little in awe of, to bosom friend and lifelong companion.

The book’s overall descriptive style is rather more literary than in a lot of children’s fiction, with an emphasis on emotions and ideas as much as sites of wonder, and no where does this come more into play than with the children’s three mentors, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which, each of whom has their own personality and sense of mystery. Indeed, the hints of awesome power and divine origins behind the facades of batty old ladies were giving me pleasant reminders of Gandalf (particularly his grumpier, more comical portrayal in The Hobbit). While the book’s first half is largely just an exploration of landscapes and ideas with the children hopping around different planets while having cosmology, philosophy and physics explained to them by the three Mrs W’s, at the same time, the gorgeous spectacle and exhilarating sense of wonder, combined with such an understandable character as Meg, made sure things didn’t become to nicey nicey, especially since L’Engle is careful to use this portion of the book to set up a danger the children must confront, and send them off to confront it just before the pace starts to stall.

One thing which I took issue with, is the way that the book’s dialogue felt so dated. Not just because of the occasional “golly”, or “jilickers.”, or even in terms of Meg’s younger twin brothers telling Meg she shouldn’t fight with boys because that was their job (an attitude I ascribed more to them both being overly sporty ten year olds than the book being written 60 years ago), but simply because the dialogue is extremely long winded and effusive. Everybody talks in lengthy, protracted sentences, explaining calmly what they feel and think in a measured fashion which felt not even 1960’s but positively Victorian (my lady compared it to Austin). For some characters, such as Meg’s well-meaning but stodgy principle Jenkins, and even voluble Mrs Whatsit, this made some sense. When however, Calvin, a fourteen year old boy is explaining in detail how he is the middle of eleven children and so feels neglected at home, how wonderful he finds Meg’s family, and how lucky Meg is to have them, my credulity felt more than a little stretched.

It also seemed odd that Meg and her brothers always call their parents “mother” and “father”, never mum and dad, (or similar), with even the narrative never letting us know they have first names and referring to them constantly as Mr And Mrs Murry.

This distant style of parenting also unfortunately made Meg’s father a bit of a disappointment when we did run into him, especially in a moment of stress when he tries to discipline Charles Wallis and insists that his son always call him “father”, or even “sir” when he addresses him; something which seemed ridiculously dictatorial to me, though I suspect was more common in America in the sixties.

The one thing L’Engle’s slightly weighty dialogue does do, is let her explore a universe of beautifully illustrated ideas, even with unusual characters like Mrs Who, who only speaks in quotations. There is no denying that several of these ideas are Christian ones, an aspect apparently the makers of the 2018 film dropped like a smelly sock when making the adaptation, however, the form of Christianity and the ideas expressed here are far from repressive religious conservatism, indeed, poor L’Engle has received intense criticism both from atheists, and from fundamentalist Christians along the way, for either being too Christian or not Christian enough.

It is true that she directly references god and angels, has a sublime sequence of benign aliens singing a hymn, and depicts the universe as a battle between light and dark. However, she equally very much explores scientific and mathematical concepts along the way, counts Buddha, Galileo and Shakespeare as examples of “warriors of light”, alongside Jesus, and most of all, never espouses any uncomfortably conservative attitudes about gender or sexual orientation, the way that even C. S. Lewis did on occasion. Even her evocation of “darkness”, is highly mysterious and unspecific, and is far more a force or a stain on the universe, than anything quite so uninspired as a Satan analogue.

So, unless one is the sort of atheist who balks at the mere mention of god or Jesus in a positive light, none of the religious ideas expressed here should provide anything that is too dogmatic. Indeed, some of them, the generally benign evolution of the universe, and some rather lovely images of how astronomy and divinity, science and spirituality combine, were simply beautiful.

The book’s final half is where the action picks up, with the children confronting an evil which is almost more frightening for an adult who can pick up the implications of an Orwellian society, and ideas like behavioural conditioning and oppressive bureaucracy than it might be for a child. While the exploration of this society is a little brief, I liked the way L’Engle could say a lot with only a few glimpses, and the way she used the intrinsic flaws of her characters as advantages, and (in the case of Charles Wallis), had his gift turn into a weakness.

My only issue with the lead up to the book’s conclusion, is that, though the evil the children confront is all sorts of nasty (especially I imagine for someone who hasn’t seen such things in science fiction before), again Meg is the one who is injured in this confrontation and requires being looked after. True, the society she explores during her recovery is fascinatingly and beautifully described, populated by aliens who could have stepped straight out of a hard sf novel by Chambers, Pohl or Brin, however having Meg injured at this point did make me wonder when Meg was going to come into her own.

The book’s final climax, despite the setup of a heroic mission, I found slightly disappointing, albeit that I suspect part of my disappointment is due to the fact that firstly, the evocation of emotions that brings the resolution is one which has been rather overused in fiction, (especially in the new series of Doctor Who), and secondly, because with the intense, effusive way emotions are discussed in the plot, the outpouring at the climax didn’t feel to me as special or satisfying as L’Engle obviously intended it to be, particularly with the book ending rather abruptly afterwards, and other than Meg’s statement, or rather restatement, of her emotional state, I didn’t especially feel her journey was complete. Then again, this is likely why L’Engle returned to the world of A Wrinkle in Time, and wrote several sequels that carried on Meg’s story.

In general, I really want to like A Wrinkle in Time, since there is a great deal here to like. A glittering explanation of ideas, both scientific, and religious, an overall optimistic and uplifting take on the universe which is probably even more needed now than when L’Engle first published the book, not to mention a cast of characters who range from the realistic to the memorably odd. Yet, I just found the sheer, bald emotionality of it, the constant reiteration of people’s feelings of love and friendship actually put me off. This I honestly can’t explain, since, despite at times being a little too drawn out, L’Engle’s poetry and word painting really should be enough to let her break the “show don’t tell” rule and get away with it, the way several of my favourite authors like William Horwood have done.

Maybe it is just my stiff Englishness showing, indeed perhaps this is why L’Engle’s books aren’t as well known on this side of the pond, or maybe this is simply one occasion when I’m unable to cast off my grumpy old git mantle and revel in the intense loveliness of everything quite as much as I’d like.

Be that as it may, the book has a lot of strengths, and is still one I’d recommend to children and adults alike. However, there is no denying that A Wrinkle in Time reminded me rather of several people I met in America, good hearted, warm, generous people with an endlessly positive outlook, whose religious faith inspired them to be kind and giving to all those they met, yet people who I really wished wouldn’t feel the need to pray quite so enthusiastically, or give me quite so many hugs, for all that I still remember them fondly.

8/10 www.niceplanet.co.meg

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