The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton

The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had been wanting to reread the Borrowers for a while and then, all of a sudden, started to find it in every bookshop I went into. This happens sometimes. Bookshops, particularly those of the second hand kind that I tend to frequent, go through trends. A while ago it was The Da Vinci Code and then it was Twilight and then it was Fifty Shades of Grey and sometimes, it would be all three at once and a slightly stunned looking volunteer trying to figure out what to do with them. In this case, it was the Borrowers (the Complete Borrowers, to be precise) and I was very happy to take it all as a sign.

If you are not familiar with these stories then a brief precis: the Borrowers is a series written by Mary Norton (1903 – 1992) and features tiny people who ‘borrow’ from the humans and the houses that they live in. The first in the series was published in 1952 and the last in 1982. There was a further short story (novelette? novella?) – Poor Stainless – which was published in 1966 and set just prior to the adventures of the first book: The Borrowers. Norton should also be known for The Magic Bed-Knob: Or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons which was destined to be adapted by Disney into Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

I had remembered something rich in the Borrowers, something that I had loved very much at the time that I had read them, but I also knew that I remembered very little about the content. This did not bother me so much because I tend to remember textures and feelings about the things I read. The way something felt to read. The way that my heart still has a place for it, even now, hundreds of years after actually reading it. Upon my return to the Borrowers, I was struck by how these feelings remained, for the most, unchanged. These are stories with such endless warmth to them. They are so British, so fiercely of their time and place, and at one point the entire story hinges on model villages. I mean, what is not to love about that perfect perfect set of circumstances?

What I was struck by, however, was the sense of peril that underpins this book. Norton creates a world that’s so convincing and so real that you feel the constant danger that the Borrowers must wrestle with. It is remarkable. And it’s not just the truth of this world that gets you involved, it’s the way that Norton does it. She is classy and subtle and trusts that the reader both can and will follow her. She believes that you will believe and is full of such confidence in this, that you can’t help but believe her.

I think about that idea of ‘trusting a reader’ a lot, about how to balance what I give the reader on a page versus what I ask them to find out or fill in the gaps by themselves. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I get it wrong, but I’m always trying to work out that dance between what you need to know, right now, and what you can’t live with out and what you can bring to this story yourself. The shades of grey, perhaps, between writer and reader. The twilight at the edge of the page. I want to know what happens there and I want the reader to be part of that. For Norton, for the Borrowers, this twilight is full of constant flux. Things change. The safe becomes the dangerous. The lost becomes the found. And she trusts you to understand that, to realise that there can be threat and danger in a footstep, that the sound of somebody answering the phone could be the most terrifying on earth, and that a cat might be the stuff of nightmares. She does not hold back and the books are stronger for it. Everything in these books are strong. Character, plot, tension, everything.

I devoured all of these stories with joy, rolling from one into the other with a sort of delirious joy. When you read somebody who’s good, you want to keep reading. I loved it entirely. I could not get over how well done it is and for how long Norton did this for.

(It’s also important to note that there are maybe a handful of references that have dated poorly but that’s always something to bear in mind with books from this period. It’s literally just a handful and if you’re reading this aloud as a bedtime story – as indeed you should because the chapters will sing in these circumstances – just step right over them. You’ll be rewarded with something utterly rich and wonderful and lovely, and an author at the utmost of her powers).

(Also the final few paragraphs of The Borrowers Avenged are some of the best I have ever read).

View all my reviews

4 thoughts on “The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton

  1. What a beautiful phrase that is of yours ‘ the twilight at the edge of the page ‘

    Enjoyed this review thank you- I need to go on a search for the Borrowers books now !

  2. I’ve only read the first in the series – with its beautifully nested hierarchy of narratives – but I too now have a collected omnibus edition and you’ve cunningly encouraged me to reconsider a revisit. Thank you! I might have to watch the Studio Ghibli adaptation Arriety again now…

    1. Oh that narration, yes! So, so clever and so, so magically done. It’s beautiful stuff. And please do revisit! I’d be so intrigued in your thoughts 🙂

      (LOVED the film as well by the way!).

Leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: