Based on its title, and the publishing history of its author, fans of Kyo Maclear might expect The Liszts to be about a child version of the composer. However, with the exception of a visual wink on the title page, the family name simply provides an opportunity for a gentle critique of our listicle-saturated world and a suggestion that we need to re-engage with the big questions of life.
The Liszts are inveterate categorizers and cataloguers. They itemize and organize their interests and obsessions into “lists most usual” and unusual. Mama makes lists of ghastly illnesses and Grandpa of his most dreaded enemies, while Winnifred creates Top 10 lists and Frederick makes lists of fun activities, such as drawing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The middle child, Edward, creates lists, too, but his are full of questions to quiet “the swirl of his midnight mind.”
Into this list-festooned, cluttered household wanders a Goreyesque, fez-wearing, balloon-toting stranger, to whom no one but Edward pays attention. The stranger shares Edward’s need to probe the unknown, from the philosophical (“How do I know my life is not a dream?”) to the scientific and practical (“Why do I have two eyes if I only see one thing?”). The questioning pair starts on a voyage of discovery that will influence the rest of the family to leave themselves open, just a little, to the unexpected.
Spanish illustrator Júlia Sardà gives the book a European flourish: the men sport vests and bushy beards; Mama’s face echoes a matryoshka doll and her coat is from a Klimt painting; Edward and the stranger’s adventure is suggestive of a Chagall. Sardà’s rich illustrations are dense with patterns, detail, and humour that will appeal to young and old for very different reasons.
Text and art beautifully combine to draw the reader in to revel not only in artifacts and lavish detail, but the wide-open spaces of the unknown.