The Artful Dodger meets TheRecording Angel in this beguiling story about a young boy and his mentor. Like everything that has changed, F.E. Higgins’ The Black Book of Secrets is a far cry from Enid Blyton’s world of gnomes and pixies.
The reluctant, but expert pickpocket Ludlow Fitch, whose parents live on gin bought out of his thieving skills, runs away from his home in the big bad city, when his malicious mother and father throw him to the wolf, Barton Gumbroot. They beat him into submission and get crooked dentist, Gumbroot, to pull away his teeth, which they can sell later—to buy more gin.
Fitch manages to get away to the village of Pagus Parvus, where he meets Joe Zabbidou, the Secret Pawnbroker, who buys confessions and records them in a black book. Zabbidou’s logic: After the unburdening, the confessor can lead an easy life. As it turns out, most of the village presents itself at the pawnbroker’s. All of them are bound by a common enemy: The wily landlord, Jeremiah Ratchet, who has them trapped in debt.
The religious metaphor is hard to miss—though the author has denied it in many interviews—especially when Zabbidou takes Fitch to the chamber, which is full of black books. “You are looking at centuries of confessions, Ludlow. My life’s work and every other Secret Pawnbroker who ever existed,” Zabbidou tells Fitch. The question now is: Who will be the next Secret Pawnbroker?
The book has quite a few things going for it. Fitch’s Dickensian accounts of the happenings in Pagus Parvus—and the confessors’ stories—are spellbinding, though a thought does cross one’s mind: How does a boy from the city’s slums get to write like that? But you—the kids certainly won’t—will hardly dwell on that question as Higgins takes the reader by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go till the last page.
Poisoned pies, grave stealers, fragments of Latin thrown in (it is the crispest language, pronounces Zabbidou), the pawnbroker’s colourful and beautiful, but poisonous South American frog, Saluki, and a wooden leg are some of the enticing ingredients in this brew. There is also the question of what happens when the villagers turn on Zabbidou and Fitch. A book that can tear children’s eyes away from screens, whatever the size.
In January, Higgins was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s (a UK-based chain of stores) Children’s Book Prize. In its third year now, the prize is awarded to the best new children’s author. The Waterstone’s prize considers only those who have fewer than three books to their credit. Over 4,000 booksellers, local schools and reading groups discuss and pick their favourite book in three categories: five to eight, nine-12 and teenage.
Higgins’ first effort could put her on track to become the next big thing in children’s literature. She also promises a sequel, signing off intriguingly by saying, “Vincit qui patitur”—she who is patient, wins.
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