The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I have a lot of time for the work of Linda Newbery, and KM Peyton is something of a legend for me, and so the thought of them coming together on this project was something special. The Key To Flambards is ‘Flambards in the present day’; a novel written by Linda Newbery which ties intimately into the remarkable original books by KM Peyton. I have always enjoyed both writers intensely. Newbery has this gift of strangeness to her work, the everyday made unusual, and nobody can write love quite like KM Peyton. Messy, truthful, painful, perfect love. Newbery working with Peyton’s themes and world should have been perfect.
I wonder if that ‘should have’ has given away where I am going with this review. I suspect it has, but let’s carry on for a moment here. Return To Flambards is a sequel, of sorts, to an iconic series. And sequels are hard. They are also incredibly prevelent in contemporary children’s literature; I could name a dozen or more titles in the recent years that have attempted to respin a classic into the contemporary world and remake it for today’s readers. It’s a hard thing to do and sometimes, I think, more indicative of an adults need to shape and make children’s stories than ever thinking about what children may like, want or need. One of the few titles that worked, I think, was the powerful Five Children On The Western Front by Kate Saunders, and it worked because Saunders was not afraid of her text. I think sometimes that loving a story can make you afraid of it. It might not be a conscious fear, or even one that keeps you awake at night, but it is still a fear and it is still there. You do not want to touch that which you love. You do not wish to break the spell. You do not wish to challenge the beauty of something held so intimately inside yourself.
And so, sequels – reimaginings – continuations – whatever you call them, do they work? Sometimes, yes, but I think you must be fearless with them. You must try to respond, to echo, but not to continue. You must try to write something that feels – so perfectly – of that which you love, but that could stand without it. An in-joke, perhaps, that still works for people who don’t pick up on the nuance. And as much I wanted it to, I do do not think that The Key To Flambards quite does it. There is the kernel of something potent here but there is also a lot of heavy lifting – and the first few chapters are hard, hard work. There is the threads of something magical but also a lot of laboured exposition. It is well done stuff, well told and well structured, but it’s just a little – flat. A little too neat. A little too straightforward. And if the world of Flambards was anything, it was not that.
It’s important to recognise that even though it takes a while to get there, The Key To Flambards is written well; beautifully at points, and there is a definite power at the heart of this book. Newbery shines when writing of the natural world, and she finds magic so easily in this space. The problem comes in the turn away from this, and the look towards one of the central themes in the book: family history. It’s at this point that the story becomes less about metaphorically finding yourself in the world and adopts a baldly literal tone. Grace – our protagonist – is suffering a crisis of identity. Learning about her family connections will help resolve that. And it does, but it does so at the expense of all of Newbery’s immense skill and all that Flambards kind of is – was – forever will be. Family history is important. I’m not sure it makes for a good book. It is an odd, bald step.
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The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery