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Eloise in Moscow : Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight

Eloise in MoscowEloise 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.

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Book Reviews

Eloise : Kay Thompson

DCIM101MEDIAThis book, oh this gloriously wicked and funny book, is one of my greatest pleasures. Kay Thompson was godmother to Liza (Lizaaa!) Minelli and wrote the Eloise series inspired by both the antics of Liza, and the experiences that Thompson herself had as living at the Plaza. And it is glorious.

Eloise is a furiously fabulous creation, full of stubborn humour and eccentric pleasures. And she lives. That’s such a thing for a character in a book of this nature, wrapped in long lines of text and strange sounding words, but she does – Hilary Knight’s illustrations make Eloise practically burst out from the page. And it’s a spirit you pick up right from the moment you open the page – as Eloise races out of sight and into the book. DCIM101MEDIA

I’ve got a bit of a thing for books of this nature, books that show us life – albeit a perhaps extreme form of life that many may not experience! – and books that show us what it can be like to be a girl and a woman. The spreads of Nanny putting on her corset for example is one of my favourite in the entire book. It’s in the loving detail of the corset, drawn with a sort of almost palpable warmth – as if it’s an old friend of Nannys which of course it is in a way!

And the relationship between Nanny and Eloise is something I particularly love as well. The whole boeloise and nannyok is coloured in this muted palette of blacks and whites and reds – reds that burn with a fiery fuschia , and then slide into the softest of muted candy stripe pinks.  There’s a lot that can be said with the use of line in picture books – and if you’ve not had a look at Jane Doonan’s superb Looking at Pictures in Picture Books, you’re missing a treat. Knight’s use of line and colour  in this book is outstanding.

Consider this moment between Nanny and Eloise. Eloise is so furiously present, she’s a blunt punch of colour and Nanny, quietly having a good old smoke in the background, is a quietly lovely mixture of black and whites against the candy striped gaiety of the sofa. Nanny merges with the background at points, and it’s sort of a comforting merge. It’s as if Nanny is so solid in Eloise’s life, so rooted, that she is just there. And she will always be there.

There’s something to be said about the construction of this image as well; the TV throws light onto Nanny and Eloise and casts a brief, flickering shadow on the wall. Nothing else beyond this couch matters because, in a way, nothing else exists. It’s all about Nanny and Eloise, and their contentment both in the moment and each other. Eloise, exuberant though she’s technically still, holds an umbrealla and you can almost feel her twirling it, and dangling her feet off the end of the couch. She’s so in this moment, so very very present, that it’s an amazingly palpable moment to witness.

Eloise is one of those books that lets you do everything you always wanted. It lets you ride the lifts up and down and press for the highest floor when you really only want the first  – and it’s all just because you can, and because you want to. It’s a book of wish-fulfilment, of furious id, of glorious vivid living in the moment because right now the moment’s all that matters.