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Stephen Fair

by Tim Wynne-Jones

Beset by nightmares and troubled by the partial knowledge of a family secret, 15-year-old Stephen Fair is beginning to doubt his sanity. Part of the problem is the blurred emotional boundary between his mother and himself. Is her strange behaviour a response to his anxieties, he wonders, or is it the other way around? The chicken-and-egg style of the question couldn’t be more appropriate, since this story is constructed around questions of origin and patterns of fracture, incubation, and rebirth.

Award-winning author Tim Wynne-Jones has combined his storytelling talents and architectural fascinations in this novel, where structure is both form and function, organizing principle and theme. For instance, the story of Noah’s Ark, with its pattern of chaos and new order, judgment and forgiveness, is embedded in the setting (the design of Stephen’s family home) and echoed in the plot. The time setting of Easter parallels this movement toward regeneration. Then, around the frame of these two central Biblical allusions, there is an intricate network of other cultural references. Even if some of these are lost on young readers, the implications of this complex structure should be clear. One of the most interesting ideas that emerges is that we are defined by the stories we tell about ourselves and our surroundings. And if dreams, memories, folklore, and other uses of language are repositories of individual and shared experience, then we discover our identities not in isolation but in relation to our community.

There are some minor weaknesses in the novel that detract from its cohesion, the most persistent of which is the unevenness in tone. The third-person narrative is mostly colloquial, but it springs occasionally into startling formality and a distinctly reproving tone, particularly on the recurring subject of irresponsible parents. A vacillation between savvy teenager and wrathful judge would be appropriate if the narrator were one of the characters, but since this is an apparently impersonal voice, consistency would have been better – if only to provide the kind of stable outer structure the novel demonstrates so pleasingly on many other levels.