The Great Harlequin Grim
Attitude: Take Care → Unobjectionable
In Brief: Marital difficulties with some attempt at reconciliation. Implied and condoned dishonesty by the main character and others. Some sensuality between 14-year-olds. Commonsense portrayal of a character with hearing difficulties. Negative portrayal of a religious character.
Publisher: Random House
Published in: 2006
Age Range: Young Teens
- Glenn Jackson is our 13-year-old point-of-view character. He's a gifted artist, and capable of looking after himself, but is picked upon as the newcomer to a village community and finds solace through his art up in the hills.
- Mr & Mrs Jackson, Glenn's parents, are going through a difficult patch in their marriage. They hope to move to Cumbria and have another child but at the last minute Glenn's mother decides to remain behind to stay with some unspecified lover. Glenn's dad is hopelessly impractical, half living in his younger world of pop classics and Elvis quiffs.
- Harvey Quinn is the only child of his parents in their old age. He's a simpleton and abnormally large. He's hiding in the Cumbrian hills, stealing food and money from nearby houses.
- Lavinia & Laura are step-sisters, Laura adopted by Lavinia's family. Their father committed suicide a few years before the story begins, affecting the family in different ways.
- Barry Crookes ("Baz") befriends Glenn at school and draws him into his own batty schemes about contacting aliens from the nearby hills, not hindered at all by his own hearing difficulties.
Glenn Jackson has to adjust as he is uprooted from his home in Burnley to a village in Cumbria, but his mother refuses to come without explaining why and he finds it difficult to fit into the village community. So he takes to the hillsides roundabout to exercise his talent for art. And there he meets Harvey Quinn, a giantesque simpleton who hardly knows his own name, and who believes he is hiding from unknown pursuers. Unable to do much else, Glenn brings him food while keeping his presence a secret from the locals, especially from “Father” Charlie, a reliigious minister turned farmer who struts around with a shotgun.
Meanwhile he attempts to fit in at school with difficulty, not helped by the local gossip mill's version of his family's situation — about which he is himself not really quite sure — and his Dad's ability to misjudge the kind of humour which a pub will appreciate. Glenn does have feelings for Laura, adopted sister of the standoffish Lavinia, and is befriended by hearing-aided Baz with his wild schemes for contacting aliens from the nearby hilltops.
One always starts to form an impression about a book from early on, even from the cover and tagline. And it's often nice to be disappointed. The array of characters presented to the reader is varied and requires a certain stretching of the imagination to conceive of them all in one village, but the realism of the village and its life is there. This is not, as I feared, the Village of the Damned with odd night-time goings on; nor is it Miss Marple's village behind which lurks some sinister secret. It's a small and fairly colourless Cumbrian village with its disaffected youngsters, bored and only to willing to find entertainment in graffiti and in horseplay. Glenn's astonished when he arrives that anyone who lived surrounded by such mountains would not be out among them all the day. But he's an artist and he's only just arrived. To the others, the landscape is a commonplace and has long since lost their interest. The villagers, old and young, thrive on rumour and gossip, and they're not too choosy about the truth.
Glenn himself is no ideal. When the local bully knocks him over on the way to school, Glenn knocks back and the bully goes onto someone's car. When he hears that his girlfriend has stolen from her sister's collecting tin, Glenn is startled but doesn't remonstrate. Nor does he hesitate to lie to the Police in order to paint a blacker picture of the self-important “Father” Charlie, too ready to point his gun. He revels in his mild fantasies about his girlfriend, encouraging a fairly passionate relationship when they do finally meet in private. Yet when Glenn, pursuing his most innocent pastime of drawing, comes across Harvey hiding in a disused shack in the hills, something keeps Glenn's mouth shut. He spends his own money to buy Harvey food and goes out of his way to keep the simple giant out of trouble, half-conscious that he's doing something his Mum would have done if she'd been there.
The supporting characters are mostly bas-relief, partly conventional characters, partly complicated. Beefwits is the most straightforward: the stock bully. Lavinia would be the queen bee, but in fact she's motivated obscurely by her father's suicide to over-protect her younger adopted sister Laura and to collect money for a new Youth Club for the village. Neither are Glenn's parents wholely a plot device: the separating couple generating angst for their teenager to wallow in. Their respective motives are perhaps as unclear to each other as they are to Glenn and to the reader, and they make some attempt at reconciliation which is not simplistically driven by Glenn's traumatic experiences towards the end of the book. The teachers are mostly given short shrift, reduced to nicknames and caricatures in Glenn's sketchbook. This is, of course, the way in which young teenagers view teachers, by their idiosyncracies, and yet it would be nice to see someone grown up who was able to accept responsibility.
The character of “Father” Charlie is a curious one. He plays the role of the arrogant landowner who doesn't understand the sensitive matter which the younger characters have understood — in this case, the need to protect Harvey. The unusual thing is his clerical position. He describes himself as someone who : “... used to be a priest in me youth. Took up the Lord's work in farming.” and he wears a silver cross and has “In God We Trust” as a windscreen sticker. It's unclear whether he still considers himself a minister or merely a Christian. But his character is at best arrogant and at worst despicable. In the epilogue chapters, Glenn returns to a grave where a cross has been set up, and suspects that this is represents an apology on Charlie's part.
Laura's dominated by her adopted older sister, but in return insouciantly steals from that sister's collecting tins to buy new paintbrushes: she is supposed to be a good artist, but nothing is really made of this. She is careless of appearance, and sensitively affectionate towards Glenn. We're supposed to be sympathetic towards her in a frightening episode which leaves her in great danger, Finally she's more than ready to indulge in some fairly sensual moments with Glenn when they do get together in private. Overall, I'm not quite sure that the author had thought through the character's motivations. On the other hand, better a complex character than a two-dimensional cut out.
The friendship between Glenn and Barry is interesting. Baz wears hearing aids, although he can lip-read, and is a devotee of rather off-beat conspiracy theory websites and magazines. He and Glenn indulge in some mild vandalism: cutting away undergrowth on a hillside to create a smiling face, and he's unwilling to help Glenn with Harvey, but he does stick by Glenn when the latter leaves Torbeck and is a cut above the average characters at school.
Harvey, the self-styled “Harlequin Grim” of the title, is the product of an unfortunate situation: elderly parents, living in an isolated spot, unable to give their difficult child the help he needs, motivated by love and generosity but hampered by practicality. After a tragic accident caused by Harvey, he is taken into care in which he never really flourishes. No-one is held up to blame for this, but the result is that he is a wild creature, unruly and unwanted, bringing his own tragedy upon himself. He steals food and money to eat, but only in desperation and without really understanding what he's doing. When attacked he's murderously violent, but again without a clear understanding of what he's doing.
- Unforseen difficulties middle-age brings to a marriage.
- Real difficulties of growing up in an isolated village
I stared some more at our day's grafting. A slow satisifed grin curled onto my lips. That beaming broadside up there was better than any V-sign. It was a ballsy 'up yours' to the cruel world below.
I left Baz at the woodland path, his rucksack jangling away downhill. Despite the moaning muscles in my legs I jogged along. Going upwards past the rampant waterfalls was harder, then tougher still up the hilly half-mile of Quarry Road. Small groups of sightseers came straggling by. It was colder now and chilly sweat was caking my skin.
At the top of Quarry Road I suddenly ducked into the woods. Father Charlie was prowling around. I watched across the wasteland as he peered through the shack's ruined window. Harly had hinted at stealing stuff from Charlie's farm. Food, for sure, and maybe even money. At last Charlie trudged away down Quarry Road, right past my hideout, gun cocked and ready.
Sunday 11th June 2006