My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m on a bit of a Robin Jarvis kick at the moment, and it was when I reread ‘The Dark Portal’ (the first in the Deptford Mice series) that I came to realise something.
I think that Jarvis taught me the concept of story, in a way. I think he taught me the concept of telling a single story within a greater whole. I am a fan of him, avowedly so, and love his work from the Whitby series to the Deptford books; from Aufwader to Green Mouse and everything in between.
His books are big books. They are unashamedly children’s books too; scary, challenging and yet accessible literature, told in a rolling style that does not dress itself up behind dense stylistic shapes. These are stories which want to be told, to be read, and when they are read, they have the curious impact of pushing themselves under your skin and settling in that odd unsure space between reality and fiction. I grew up near Whitby and could almost see Aunt Alice, cycling over the bridge and tramping the beach, Ben and Jennet at her side.
But the Deptford books, oh the bigness of these books astounds me so (and my thanks to my equally beloved Michelle Magorian for teaching me the proper way to pronounce Deptford). These books are stories which stand hugely in their own right but also layer and cut against each other, their sediment shifting and revealing more of the individual story the more you read the other. This is great and clever work and patient, too, that quiet belief in the story to happen when and how it needs to happen, that shift in perspective that comes when you read one and come back to reread another. I admire this, I admire it greatly.
And so The Dark Portal sits, as a beginning to the Deptford Mice, but as a sequel to the Deptford Histories and as a companion to the Deptford Almanac (one of my most treasured books ever). It is, nominally, the story of a group of mice and a group of rats and an evil, terrifying figure in the shadowy sewers called Jupiter. The rats serve Jupiter and the mice keep their wary distance, living above the ‘Grille’ and rarely making trips down into the sewers. But there is magic in the Grille, dark magic, and one day it makes a mouse called Arthur Brown enter the sewers and so begin a series of dark and terrifying events which could change the world forever.
It is a story which sits comfortably and superbly so within itself. The world of the rats and mice (and squirrels, and bats) is huge and layered in mythology, story and truth. There’s not one inch of this world I don’t believe, and there’s a part of me that wouldn’t be surprised, even now, to see Twit shimmy up one of the plants outside. His competency in this world, the thick, dense taste of it, is beguiling. And it is powerful, hugely so, These are books that show relatively young readers just what can be achieved in books, in story.
(Do note, that if you’re reading this with your own mouselets, there are some scary and bloody moments in it so do, as ever, read the book yourself and trust your instincts)
The Dark Portal is also a story that swells and grows, the more you read of Jarvis’ work. You learn character backstories, motives, rationale and so much more. There are things in these stories which would feed the internet for weeks, and the puzzling out of meaning, the dull suspicion of something more than coincidence, and then the bright clarity of connection , is something that will always make me relish Jarvis’ work.
Children’s literature is good, guys. It’s been good for a long while, and I think it’s in a bit of a brilliant and golden position right now with the quality of work being produced. But with every trend there are individuals who are ahead of the curve, who are producing world-changing, genre-defining books ahead of their time. Jarvis was, is, one of those authors and The Dark Portal is a wonderful introduction to his work.