There, under a trapdoor beneath the carpet, they discover a handwritten, leather-bound book like none they’ve ever seen before: The History of Mischief. The aged tome comprises individual histories of a succession of “mischiefs”, who since ancient times have passed to each other the volume, and through its possession, the magical powers it bestows, which manifest differently in each holder.
Kay and her rather difficult little charge Jessie, from whose point of view the central story is written, find a new way to connect through reading these histories, set in every imaginable time and place, from ancient Greece and war-torn China to the Ethiopian Empire and Victorian England, many featuring famous characters from both history and legend.
These mischiefs’ tales appear as standalone stories studded through the narrative of Jessie and Kay as they struggle to get move on with school and work and their new roles in their new, smaller household. Increasingly the unearthed History, the riddle of its provenance, its oddnesses and inconsistencies, takes over their lives, suggesting that solving its mysteries might solve those of their own family, and somehow give these struggling sisters salvation.
This novel represents both a remarkable feat of imagination and an equally remarkable quantity and breadth of historical research, improbably married into a beguiling and compulsive main storyline that hooks the reader instantly, thanks to the completely convincing creation of childhood that is Jessie. The damaged victim of a horrendous twist of fate, she is an indomitable spirit yet never too-sweet; instead she’s a refreshingly lifelike little brat who misbehaves terribly and refuses to be pitied or coddled by any of the well-meaning adults around her, describing her world with a humour that is all the funnier for being unintentional.
Kay, while never seen or heard except through Jessie’s eyes and ears, is nevertheless similarly strongly drawn. Somehow the limited information given concerning her does not affect the reader’s ability to empathise with her, to like her and to want to know more of her. Together, she and Jessie’s relationship and dialogue are entirely believable and naturalistic.
It does take some energy, then, to leave Kay and Jessie for repeated forays into the worlds of the History, to learn the characters and settings of each long-past interlude. Despite these stories’ sophisticated evocations of faraway times and places, their whimsy and inventiveness, I do find myself rushing through them to get back to Kay and Jessie, in whom I am thoroughly invested. Having said this, however, these stories prove vital to the book’s intention and plot, and more than earn their place by its conclusion; plus, I have never enjoyed reading short stories or historical stories, thus another reader might enjoy these interludes most of all.
Overall, this is a marvellous debut, a unique novel from an emerging writer of huge ambition and astonishing intellect, that will satisfy adults as much as the younger audience it is aimed at.
The History of Mischief
Fremantle Press, $19.99