This week I’m recommending a cool, watery book to read during hot weather. “Ingo” (2005) is the first of a five-volume Fantasy series for children by versatile British writer, Helen Dunmore, whose recent death has saddened her many readers. It is set in the beautiful county of Cornwall (as seen in “Poldark”) and in the undersea realm of Ingo. There is an attractive box-set of the five “Chronicles of Ingo” but each volume is also available individually in paperback or ebook form.

“Ingo” is the story of Sapphire (Sapphy) Trewhella and her brother, Conor. They live with their parents in a small village on the Cornish coast. The Trewhellas seem a happy family but one issue divides them. Sapphy and her Dad, Mathew, are passionate about the sea but Mum, Jennie, hates and fears it. One summer evening, Mathew slips away to the nearby cove and takes his boat out. He never comes back. The wreckage of his boat is eventually found but there is no sign of Mathew. He is presumed drowned but his children refuse to give up hope.

The story continues thirteen months later. Jennie is now supporting her family by working as a waitress in a nearby town. She has begun to “move on” and has met a new man – a professional diver called Roger. This, coupled with unkind gossip about her father’s disappearance, makes Sapphy very unhappy. She is haunted by the song that Mathew used to sing to her – “I wish I was away in Ingo, Far across the briny sea…”  Sensible Conor is the one person Sapphy relies on but suddenly he starts disappearing for hours on end. She sees him in the cove talking to a strange girl far out on the rocks. Conor won’t tell her what is going on but when Sapphy feels compelled to go down to the cove at night, she meets Faro who seems to be half-boy, half-seal.

Faro takes Sapphy into the captivating underwater realm of Ingo, challenging everything she thought she knew about the world and her own nature. Once in Ingo, it is hard for Sapphy to remember her life and family “in the Air” but concerns about Conor draw her back to the surface. She longs to explore Ingo but time and truth are different there and she isn’t sure how far she can trust Faro. Sapphy seeks answers to the mystery of her father’s disappearance from the elusive Faro and from local Wise Woman, Granny Carne. Cornish legends may hold a clue but Sapphy and Conor are confronted with a more immediate problem. They must risk their lives to prevent a deadly clash between people from the Air and the guardians of Ingo.

Helen Dunmore (1952-2017) was a hard author to pin down. She was a prize-winning poet, novelist and literary critic. Her fiction for adults ranged from contemporary and historical novels to ghost stories. When a highly regarded literary author also writes for younger readers, it’s often assumed that these children’s books will be inferior to their usual work and unworthy of adult attention. This ignores the fact that writing for children requires even more care and discipline than writing for adults. I believe that you can appreciate the true essence of a writer in their work for children because they have to pare everything down to essentials. In my view, “The Ingo Chronicles” are timeless children’s Classics which will be an important part of Dunmore’s literary legacy.

“Ingo” was inspired by Dunmore’s love of Cornwall, where she had a house for 40 years. The Trewhellas’ cottage and the nearby cliffs and cove come across as real places and brought back happy memories for me of childhood beach holidays in Cornwall. “The Ingo Chronicles” draw on the fascinating folklore of the South-West of England, like several other books I’ve recommended (e.g. “Diving Belles”, January 2015 and “An English Ghost Story”, October 2015). Cornwall is particularly rich in legends about mermaids, some of which include details of an imagined life under the sea and information about how mer-people view the “forked” creatures who dwell on land. Dunmore uses these legends but also subverts them as Faro mocks traditional human ideas about mermaids and allows Sapphy tantalising glimpses of life in Ingo. Dunmore only reveals her invented undersea world a little at a time. I’d advise reading “Ingo” and its first sequel “The Tide Knot” together to get a fuller picture.  Volume One is a tense read because you are never sure whether Conor and Sapphy are being offered a marvellous adventure or being cruelly lured away from home and family.

If you’ve ever longed to be able to swim through the sea as easily as a fish does, you’ll enjoy this story. Sapphy experiences the freedom of being able to breathe underwater and ride the sea’s currents and tides. She joyfully learns to communicate and interact with dolphins and gets close to a range of marine creatures from spider-crabs to sea-horses and grey seals to purple jellyfish. Yet “Ingo” isn’t merely an escapist Fantasy. Sapphy is pressured to choose between her human and mer natures, as many young people of mixed backgrounds are pressured to choose between conflicting cultures or idealogies. The inhabitants of Ingo are angry with the Air People for all the dreadful things that we have done to the oceans, such as destroying coral reefs, polluting beaches, hunting whales and using fishing nets that trap dolphins. Righteous as this anger is, “The Ingo Chronicles” ask whether it is ever justifiable to punish innocent individuals for the harmful acts of corporations and governments.

I’ve said that “Ingo” isn’t an escapist Fantasy but it is a Fantasy novel about being tempted to escape the difficulties and tedium of daily life. The story is told from Sapphy’s point of view but right from the start Dunmore cleverly allows the reader to see that Sapphy’s adored father is the kind of man who might just abandon his responsibilities.  A few brief scenes make the fault-lines in Mathew and Jennie’s marriage obvious. Dunmore writes with compassion about a fractured family and a slow and painful recovery from grief. Stubbon, secretive Sapphy is a realistically drawn heroine though constant Conor seems a little too good to be true. Sapphy’s prickly relationship with her mother is at the heart of the story. Even though you know it’s wrong, it is hard not to sympathise with Sapphy’s anger at her mother for beginning a new relationship. Sapphy resents Roger all the more because he is annoyingly nice and the kind of reliable father-figure she has never had before. Complexities of this kind help to make “Ingo” a novel which combines the best of Fantasy and Realism. If you are looking for a high quality series which might appeal to older children or teenagers, I’d thoroughly recommend “The Ingo Chronicles”. Until next time….

Geraldine

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