Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
So many superlatives have been attached to Chloe Hooper’s work and her latest titled Bedtime Story is no exception, having already attracted many accolades. In it, she considers, in range and depth, the problem she faced in preparing her two sons, the elder particularly, for the imminent death of their father, Don.
Chloe Hooper is well known for her measured and courageous writing, about subjects that, because of their difficulties, many writers would shun. With both the The Tall Man and The Arsonist, she exhaustively researched facts and assembled them with a scrupulous care.
This time the topic is not as controversial but helping a child to cope with the death of a much-loved parent is an enormous challenge. The impact on Gabriel, her younger son, is not so obvious but her seven-year-old (unnamed throughout) is addressed directly and his responses are illuminating, surprising and guide her direction in seeking a pathway to ease their approaching loss.
Written in carefully chosen language, this work is sensitive, searching and poignant. In her trying to imagine what death means to a seven-year-old, she first focuses on fairy tales. Those earliest stories from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen are powerful in their presentations of family, danger and death. They can be the stuff of nightmare – a witch in the deliciously enticing cottage who eats children nicely fattened up! Definitely not a kindly old lady…
They can encounter gratuitous cruelty, abuse of power (the Queen in Snow White), all of which can prepare children for the shock of injustice, powerlessness and sadness in life.
Thankfully most of these horrific tales do end happily.
Good triumphs. Evil fails to prevail.
With Don facing a terrible prognosis, his days become increasingly miserable. The once successful, brilliant writer is a shadow of his former self as the chemotherapy inflicts its awful side effects.
Chloe further investigates the lives of the authors of classic literature for children. Most suffered troubled childhoods and many left orphaned at a very young age. Eric Carle, German and author The Very Hungry Caterpillar, had trauma in his early years, yet he was able to produce a book that is loved by countless millions. Its charm has an underlying message…. beauty can emerge from unexpected sources.
J R R Tolkien, A A Milne and many of the Victorian authors of our much-treasured books led lives where, to escape from loneliness and tragedy, they reverted to their imaginations. In his case, Tolkien created an entire kingdom. It appears that the imagination can help a child through difficult times.
This does not smooth Don’s ordeal. Instead, he turns to nature and becomes enthralled by the daily lives of a pair of little honeyeaters in his back garden. They build their nest close to the house, raise their young, and attempt to survive the murderous yellow eyed Currawong, ever watchful. Theirs is a life of constant vigilance, fast paced activity and acceptance of the way instinct guides them. All this graced by their constant song.
The illustrations deserve high praise. They are such a perfect complement to the weighty content of Bedtime Story; monochromatic, occasional, drifting across pages, soft and spectre-like. Reminders of the haunting threat that has erased a lot of colour from the parents’ lives.
The subject matter might be oppressive, too dark for some, but it is so deftly handled, a reader shares the efforts, courage, pain and, ultimately, joy.
For a stage in life when comfort evades and we are overwhelmed, this book gives a valuable reminder of how literature, from our earliest days, prepares us for life’s vicissitudes. The story at bedtime is important for many reasons….
Without doubt, this book stands as a dazzling accomplishment from one of our very best writers.
by Chloe Hooper
ISBN 978 176110 351 3