Monday, June 19, 2006

The Leap - Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud's The Leap is an intense and thought-provoking book about a girl who sees her best friend drown, but believes that he was actually taken by women who live in a parallel reality to ours. Charlie visits the Mill Pond with Max and watches him climb up into a plum tree. He eats a lot of plums himself and throws some to Charlie, then she notices that he is sitting gazing down into the pond, his concentration utterly fixed; when she calls out to him, he ignores her, and then he suddenly throws himself from the tree into the pond. Charlie dives in after him, even though she’s not a good swimmer, and finds (or appears to find) several long haired, green eyed women, who have taken Max into their arms and are taking him away from Charlie. Charlie then proceeds to dream about following Max wherever he goes, starting at a sea shore, travelling across a desert and into a massive forest.

On one level, Charlie's belief in Max being captured by the women in the Mill Pond is true and she must follow him in the parallel reality, if she is to regain her friend, but on another, more realistic level, it's quite possible that the women were just weeds and plants in the Mill Pond, and the women are Charlie's explanation for Max's apparently inexplicable act. But Stroud builds up the details of the parallel reality in which Charlie is following Max to an incredible level. The way in which Stroud builds up the suspense in the first chapter is skilful and compelling: Charlie's account of what happened (or what she believes happened) is intercut with her experience of being in the hospital after Max drowned and she nearly drowned trying to rescue him, and it's not until almost the end of the first chapter that you actually learn what happened (or what Charlie believes happened). In the second chapter Stroud switches the PoV to Charlie's older brother, James, which gives the reader an outsider’s perspective on what becomes an increasingly worrying situation – and adds to the tension.

Chapter 3 gives us the medical point of view – that Charlie nearly drowned and, in doing so, she hallucinated and "saw" the women where there were really just pond weeds. It's recommended that Charlie receive psychiatric counselling to help her come to terms with Max's death, but Charlie refuses to discuss Max after her mother reacted sceptically to Charlie's account of the women in the pond. This means that Charlie gets sucked into her dreams of the parallel reality, and her experiences as she begins to follow Max are described in an almost hypnotic fashion. After several weeks of dream travel she encounters someone in the great forest and she refers to him as "the only living creature [she] had seen in all [her] weeks of travel"; this seems significant – as if Charlie does know, sub/unconsciously that Max really is dead, but she cannot admit it yet.

Stroud’s use of descriptive language adds to the intensity of this book; there's a description of Charlie’s encounter with hundreds of birds in the forest: "Down and down they came, and now the air was rushing with the noise, the astounding ear-convulsing quivering and sighing of a million feathers on the wing." The "ear-convulsing" is a particularly strong adjectival phrase: I know that I have experienced noise so loud it seemed to cause convulsions in my ears ! The other intensifier is the way in which Stroud rapidly intercuts Charlie's and James' PoV in the final chapter – the rapid switching between the two ratchets up the already tense situation even further. In the end, Charlie realises that Max isn't in a parallel reality, and that he is actually dead, but she makes the realisation on the very brink of plunging into a quarry – and it's only the voice of James calling her name that saves her from the plunge that would otherwise have killed her.


slam2011 said...

Thanks for this commentary. It reminded me how I enjoyed reading this book a few years ago. As an experienced adult reader I was bemused by my own inability to decide what was 'really' going on. Was it a supernatural fantasy or a psychological study? I still haven't decided.

Michele said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michele said...

I don't think you're supposed to decide either way. I think the ambiguity is deliberate.

slam2011 said...

Yes, I suppose that's what impressed me. Stroud didn't feel the need to have Charlie wake up in the shower, so to speak, so his readers could tick a category box.

Wonder who/what the baddie in the forest represented, the young man who tried to get her to eat some fruit? (Which, judging by the story of Persephone and Goblin Market, would be a very bad mistake). Must revisit this book!

Michele said...

I don't know, but it's definitely intriguing.

(And yes, I think I might revisit it soon too!)