Clive Barker, known as a master of fantastical horror stories, has ventured again into children's literature. Yet, his new novel ABARAT, is quite different from his earlier children's work THE THIEF OF ALWAYS, which was a simple and spooky tale. ABARAT is a vast and colorful fantasy in the tradition of the Oz and Narnia stories. The world of Abarat grew out of a series of paintings the multi-talented Barker created. Inspired by his own imagination, he wrote the story of the paintings and the characters and places they portray. The book itself (the first in a projected 4-part series) is full of these vivid paintings helping to transport the reader to the new universe Barker has created.
The journey to Abarat is undertaken by the unassuming Candy Quakenbush, a 16-year-old girl from Chickentown, Minnesota. Driven to boredom, anger and frustration by her cruel teacher, alcoholic father and distracted mother, she becomes intrigued by the mysterious story of Henry Murkitt while writing a paper about the history of Chickentown (previously named Murkitt) for school. Henry died in a room of the Comfort Tree Hotel and left behind his sextant, used to navigate the seas. When her mean-spirited teacher rejects her school report, Candy flees the classroom and finds herself in a field outside of town mesmerized by a cloud and in front of a dilapidated lighthouse. Before she can solve the mystery of what a lighthouse is doing in the middle of Minnesota, she finds herself face to faces with a seven headed man. He/they tell her the lighthouse, amazingly, once sat on the coast of the sea of Izabella, a sea Candy, with some help from her new friends (yes, each head is a distinct personality) is able to summon after a dramatic battle with another monstrous creature. This sea carries Candy far from her home, her school, and all that is familiar. Yet, it draws her closer to Henry Murkitt.
And so begins Candy's journey to Abarat, a land of 25 islands; one for each hour of the day and one for the time in-between time. The isles of Abarat are as diverse as their populations. Candy is enthralled by Abarat and its citizens, but those she meets think she, as a visitor from the Hereafter, as our world is known, is most exotic. But Candy hardly has time to take in the wondrous sites around her. Her presence is immediately known by several sinister men who realize the threat she poses to their evil plans for domination. It seems Candy was destined to make this journey (ah! now the prologue is beginning to make sense) and besides that she is a scrappy fighter! Soon she is teamed up with a gentle character named Malingo whom she has freed from slavery and together the flee the dark and powerful forces around them. This duo is surely destined for great things, narrow escapes and amazing adventures!
What usually makes a fantasy novel successful is enough of the familiar to make the New World easier to visualize and understand, to make it somehow more plausible. This element of familiarity is what has made other Barker novels, most notably WEAVEWORLD so wonderful and engaging. With ABARAT he discards this formula and presents many new creatures inhabiting a truly original landscape. While in many ways this works, it is a bit overwhelming and distracting. It is unbelievable that Candy would not be paralyzed with shock at the spectacular newness she encounters: she seems to so seamlessly make the transition between worlds. And, I can only hope that Barker comes back to sew up all the loose ends he has left dangling in this first installment.
However, Barker has succeeded in bringing a unique vision to his readers. Perhaps the pace of ABARAT is so frantic is because it is so clear in Barkers mind: it is obvious he has a whole new mythology he would like to share and he can't get it onto the page fast enough. As a novel, ABARAT is dense, detailed and sometimes confusing. As a landscape and fairy tale it is enticing, dark and beautiful. Most likely the young readers this book is intended for will not be critical of the occasional sloppiness in the text and most likely their attention will not be lost through the mental and physical obstacle course Candy finds herself in when she journeys to Abarat.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 1, 2002