After last week’s `big read’, something short and sweet this time. Since it is my birthday tomorrow, I’m indulging myself  by recommending a favourite children’s book which may be rather hard to find. `The Moon in the Cloud’  by British author Rosemary Harris (not to be confused with the American mystery writer, Rosemary Harris, though many do)  was first published in 1968 and won the Carnegie Medal for that year. Sadly and strangely it is now out of print and doesn’t seem to be available on Kindle or any other e-reader. However, a quick search on turned up 69 second-hand copies, most of them very cheap.

`The Moon in the Cloud’ is set in the `Bible Lands’ at the time of Noah. It tells the story of Reuben, who scrapes a living as an artist, musician and animal-trainer, and his enchanting wife, Thamar. Their neighbour, the prophet Noah, is warned by the Lord God that a Great Flood is coming. He is ordered to build an Ark to save his family and two of each type of animal. Noah tells his lazy and unpleasant son Ham to find two desert lions and fetch a pair of sacred cats from Kemi – the Black Land (Ancient Egypt). Ham gets Reuben to go in his place by telling him that this is his only chance to win a place in the Ark for Thamar.  So Reuben sets out with his faithful dog, Benoni, his black cat Cefalu and his grumpy camel, Anak, for the `land of cruelty and treachery and slaves – where a man might disappear…and never be seen or heard of again’.

Reuben’s worst fears are soon realized. At an oasis, he encounters the High Priest of the lion-goddess Sekhmet, who forces Reuben to go with him to Men-nofer, the capital of Kemi. There Reuben is separated from his beloved animals and thrown into a grim prison, where he is befriended by a condemned tomb-robber. Cefalu, on the other hand, is worshipped as a sacred cat and installed in the temple of Sekhmet, where he meets Meluseth, a white cat who is convinced that she is a goddess. Meanwhile, Thamar retreats into the desert after being pestered by Ham. The corrupt High Priest of Sekhmet is out of favour at court. When he hears about Reuben’s remarkable skill at playing a reed pipe, the High Priest gives Reuben to the music-loving King of Kemi. Although Reuben is now a slave, he strikes up a friendship with the lonely young King. Life at the royal court is far from safe. Reuben makes an enemy of the powerful Vizier and finds himself caught up in a feud between two ambitious High Priests. Can Reuben, and his animal friends, escape from Kemi in time to save Thamar from drowning in the Great Flood?

It can be hard to enjoy a novel if you have specialist knowledge of the time or place in which it is set. I first read `The Moon in the Cloud’ and its two sequels before I trained to be an Egyptologist but I still love them. Harris set her story in the reign of a fictional ruler of the late Old Kingdom. Apart from a few details, such as the idea that the royal pyramids were built by slaves, the Egyptian background is pretty accurate, but this is an Egypt seen through the eyes of a foreign captive. The cruelties and inequalities of life in Old Kingdom Egypt are emphasized yet Reuben is also dazzled by the wealth and sophistication of this great civilization. As a staunch monotheist, Reuben believes that the numerous gods and goddesses of Egypt are false and finds the animal cults ridiculous, especially when they involve worshipping his own cat. Harris also treats the Old Testament story of Noah and the Flood with gentle irreverence but this is part of a long tradition in Christian culture. The scene in `The Moon in the Cloud’ in which Noah’s wife attributes her husband hearing the voice of God to indigestion might have come from one of the `Mystery Plays’  performed in the streets and churches of medieval Europe. At the end of the novel, Harris fits her invented couple, Reuben and Thamar, into the Biblical narrative of the Flood in a most ingenious way.

The plot summary may make `The Moon in the Cloud’ sound a grim and scary book when in fact it is funny and charming. That’s partly due to the humorous`authorial voice’ which tells the story looking back from a modern viewpoint. This voice frequently intervenes with helpful explanations (`In Kemi one didn’t die, one politely went West’) and astute comments on characters (`he was now squashed evil rather than evil rampant’)  and events (`It was a gay crowd, for there is nothing gayer than a crowd which feels very much alive, waiting for someone who will soon be very dead’). `The Moon in the Cloud’ is Fantasy, not Historical fiction. The reader gets to overhear the conversations of angels and the voices of labourers’ bones in the desert and, like Reuben, to understand the languages spoken by all kinds of animals. The story is packed with delightful animal characters, including  Reuben’s patient dog and pessimistic camel, a Barbary ape who finds fleas good company, and Mouse, an elephant who came north `seeking for a country where no snakes fell down your neck when you were sleeping’, who turns out to play a vital role in the plot. Cats are popular in Fantasy fiction but Cefalu, a moggie suddenly elevated to divine status, is one of the best. Harris was obviously a keen observer of cat behaviour, as shown in a  delightful scene in which a whole company of Egyptians has to stay face-down in the sand until Cefalu has finished his morning `stretch and wash’. He courts beautiful but dim Meluseth by sweeping lotus leaves into a couch for her with his tail and tempting her with `fat young rats and geckos’. Meluseth is too self-absorbed to respond, until an encounter with a truly formidable feline changes her view of the world.

There are endearing comic characters among the humans too, such as Tahlevi, the kindly thief who can’t resist a rich tomb, but at the heart of the story are two good men – gentle but determined Reuben, who has little but his integrity, and King Merenkere, unhappily married to his  own sister (an Egyptian royal custom) and bullied by his ministers ( `he wished that all the great men around him didn’t look like decayed hippopotamuses’). In a key scene, Reuben risks death by refusing to worship Merenkere as a god but honours him as a great king. As you read `The Moon in the Cloud’ you can almost feel the author falling in love with Merenkere.  He dominates the sequel, which is called `The Shadow on the Sun’ and introduces a spirited heroine and a terrifying sorceress. In the third volume, `The Bright and Morning Star’ , we find out what happened to the children of Reuben and of Merenkere. So, if you manage to get hold of a copy of `The Moon in the Cloud’ and find that you enjoy it, you will have two more treats to come. I’ll be back in a fortnigh’s time…