A glance back at former reviews of Frances Hardinge’s work reveals that I have overused the word “weird.” Hardly the nicest word, and yet I meant it as a compliment. It’s a testament to my struggle to pinpoint what it is that makes Hardinge’s books stand out. Nevertheless, stand out they do.
Verdigris Deep (2008) is a weird book and, once again, that’s meant as a compliment. Ryan, Josh and Chelle get stranded in a forbidden village when they miss their bus home. Finding they have no money for the next bus they resort to pinching coins from an old wishing well hidden in the wood. What they don’t know is that the well is inhabited by an angry well spirit who doesn’t react well to having her coins stolen. Turns out, the contract formed when someone makes a wish and drops a coin must be upheld and the three children find themselves in the tricky position of having to locate the original owners of the coins and grant their wishes.
What could be a sweet story takes several sinister turns. In order to grant the wishes, the children are given special powers, but these come with complications. Ryan’s knuckles sprout strange eyes that allow him to see things others can’t, Chelle finds herself spilling the innermost thoughts of passersby, and Josh, the charismatic leader of the pack, causes electrical objects to malfunction. These skills help the children identify wishers but they also result in dark discoveries — it’s all very well and good granting a wish, but what if the wisher desires something bad? As the children grapple with moral questions they also have to confront their own strengths and weaknesses and analyse the health of their friendship.
Verdigris Deep is a wonderful children’s book — jam packed with difficult questions but infused with a wildly exciting plot to keep it lively. The story is told from Ryan’s perspective who, although possessing superior intelligence, has always let Josh take centre stage. The friendship between Josh and Ryan is a complicated but familiar power play, influenced by problems at home and school. As Josh becomes increasingly caught up in the game, Ryan has to confront his former subservience.
Hardinge, like all good children’s authors, doesn’t underestimate her audience and problems with family, school and friendships are all tackled unflinchingly. It’s particularly refreshing to see children have adventures within the confines of a fairly standard family life. While so many authors confront this problem by making their young characters orphans or at least providing them with absent parents, Hardinge combines family drama and supernatural adventure to great effect. Her pithy observations about the children’s parents are ones that both children and adults will recognise.
There are times in Verdigris Deep when the situation being described is so bizarre that it becomes hard to visualise and occasionally the introduction of new characters feels chaotic. In general however, Verdigris Deep is Hardinge on top form.
NB: Tragically, the title of this book was changed to the fairly pathetic Well Witched in the US. I’d love to know who made this decision and what on earth they were thinking. Granted, most children won’t have heard of the word “verdigris” but what’s wrong with learning something new? I would have thought the intriguing word would attract children to the book rather than put them off. If Hardinge’s greatest strength is that she never talks down to her readers, her titles should be left alone!… and, I’m happy to report that Amulet Books is reprinting Verdigris Deep in the US with its original title in April 2018! The first line of the promotional blurb on Amazon is “Verdigris (n.): a blue-green rust that tarnishes ageing and forgotten copper coins, altering them entirely… ”
Verdigris Deep is the third of Frances Hardinge’s novels that I’ve read, and though I suspect it will never be my favourite, it still contains everything I love about her writing: complex themes, beautiful prose, a shrewd eye for psychological realism in its characters, and a dark fairy tale ambience.
Introverted Ryan and chatterbox Chelle are best friends with Josh, though it’s obvious that he is more of a ringleader than a friend in return. With his forceful, charismatic personality, the others are helplessly pulled along in his wake – which is why they have no recourse when Josh shimmies down a wishing well to pinch coins for their bus ride home.
But stealing from an ancient wishing well has strange and disturbing consequences, and soon all three are gifted (or cursed) with mysterious powers: Chelle can read minds, Josh can manipulate metals, and Ryan is haunted by visions of a watery woman, who clearly wants something from him.
Putting the pieces together, the trio release that the spirit of the well expects them to help her grant the wishes of those that invoked her power, in recompense for the coins they stole. Chelle automatically channels the thoughts of those who made a wish at the well, while Josh’s newfound abilities can manipulate the circumstances they find themselves in.
It seems straightforward enough, but Ryan knows there are more to wishes than even the wisher realizes, and as the recipients of their “help” start to suffer the consequences of their granted desires, he grows increasingly desperate to end this pact with the well spirit. But Josh likes the power that’s been bestowed upon him, and is just as reluctant to give up the endeavour that’s making him feel strong and important for the first time in his life.
I sincerely wish that Frances Hardinge was more well-known than she is, as she has an incredible gift not just for description, but in cutting to the core of her characters and bringing their thoughts, foibles and strengths to vivid life. This passage for example, which illuminates the inner workings of Josh:
Ryan suddenly thought of the tricksters in stories who made you laugh because they did funny things you didn’t dare do, and then did more wicked things that were still amusing, and then turned your stomach over by doing horrible, diabolical things that were only funny to them. It didn’t mean they’d changed; it just meant they’d slid off the far end of their own scale, an end you hadn’t seen before.
Verdigris Deep (like all her stories) is packed full of these insights, which shine a torch into the human psyche just as surely as they deal with weighty themes such as desire, peer pressure, fear, corruption, and the impact a good (or bad) upbringing can have on a child.
If I have one complaint, it’s that the story’s internal logic is a little inelegant, with the trio of friends stretching my suspension of disbelief not only in figuring out what the well spirit wants of them, but in granting the wishes of the people they track down. Even with Chelle’s mind-reading abilities, the progression of the plot relies on the kids making profoundly random assumptions about what’s going that conveniently prove to be correct.
For those not in the know “verdigris” refers to the blue-green rust that tarnishes old copper coins, which has all sorts of literal and figurative meaning within the context of the story. There is truly a wealth of riches here, and considering this isn’t even Hardinge at her best, just imagine the quality of her other books…