Eloise in Moscow by Kay Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are times when you realise that defining something as a ‘five-star’ book and thus ‘amazing’ in the Goodreads schemata, is a process that could be interpreted in many ways. And thus, we come to ‘Eloise in Moscow’ which is most definitely amazing but amazing in a very distinct sort of sense of the word.
I’ve written about Eloise before, and I won’t thematically repeat that here because, to be frank, Eloise in Moscow is quite different (and amazing) beast. It deserves it’s own space.
So what is that space? Well, it’s gloriously eccentric and RAWTHER appealing but also distinctly gobsmacking at points. It is a book which is very much a product of its time (published initially in 1959), and opens with the vividly ominous sentence of “They were expecting me” It’s not quite what I expect from an Eloise book; these meshes of the vivid and wild and exuberance, and so Eloise in Moscow starts in an odd place for me. A self-conscious place, exacerbated by the row of Russian faces ranged across the bottom of the double page spread and all of them looking at Nanny and Eloise. Behind Nanny and Eloise stand more faces, caught in the evocative movement of black lines on grey and white, the swift curve of a wind in snow. It is a heck of a statement to begin with: this text is eyes and watching and deliberate self-awareness.
This odd, jerky tone continues throughout the text. Lines are isolated as they are quite often in an Eloise text, but in comparison with something like the joyous abandon of Eloise in Paris (which I adore), Eloise in Moscow (note the deliberateness of that location; the capital, the centre, the heart of this alien landscape) is a book full of sentences which are very clearly saying more than they are meant to say: “You only go to Moscow once”, “Everybody watches everybody in Moscow” and “It was rawther chilly”. This book is fascinating. It’s madly appealing, as every Eloise book is, but this book is fascinating and amazing and something that I keep returning to in a sort of ‘maybe this time I’ll be able to figure it out’. It’s a palimpsest of sorts as I keep seeing this text written on others texts and written on by others, all of them disconnected and connected, and yet somehow caught in this continuum of Eloise.
The colour scheme of Eloise in Moscow is muted; greys and blacks and whites, all of which contrast against an exuberant, constant yellow (consider the implications briefly of that colour note) which features throughout. This continues up to the centre of the text where there’s an utterly beautiful fold out map of the Kremlin. This is joyful, madly so, and it’s a moment that sees Knight on fine form. It’s the only spread which involves red and green and blue and these all collide in a vivid snapshot of the Kremlin against the fluffy, snow-tinged borders of the Moscow River.
So then, how do we begin to sum up this intensely brilliant and more than a little bit of its time text? I mean, I haven’t even begun to talk about the constant spy references; the spy who follows Eloise and Nanny throughout the text, the shadows cast by characters listening in but stood just out of frame, the sequence where Eloise wanders through hotel rooms and hears lots of people coughing before finding “all of these machines / twirling around by themselves.” Naturally, Eloise turns these off before meandering insouciantly off down the corridor (God, I love her).
Maybe that’s the right way to sum up this book – by acknowledging its context as a book written during a very specific time frame, but also by remembering just what it is about Eloise that is so lovely. The text itself is intensely richly evocative and exuberance and the book itself is a thing of utter, utter fascination. In a way it rather transcends what it is and reminds me of the intense power that picture books have. They are things which capture the world. It’s up to us to decide how we look at it.