All children have a toy they love more than anything else in the world, no matter how many toys (so many toys!) they are given over the years. (Mine was a floppy old panda called Anna.) Jack, the seven-year-old boy at the centre of JK Rowling’s new book for children has DP, short for Dur Pig; a stuffed, squishy trotter well acquainted with the washing machine.
Like many a child in a modern children’s story, Jack is going through a rough time. His dad has left and he now lives in a new town with his mum and her new fiance and an older stepsister who hates him. So when his stepsister throws DP out of the car onto the motorway one Christmas Eve in a fit of temper, a grief stricken Jack has just one option: to wait until the house is asleep and go and find his only friend.
From the Nutcracker to Toy Story via, in our house, a much-loved book called The Big Blue Train, there are countless stories for children exploiting the imaginative possibilities to be found in toys that spring into life when the adults aren’t looking. I don’t remember any being quite so frightening, though, as The Christmas Pig which is mainly set in a nightmarish netherworld called The Land of the Lost, peopled by mud-covered bunnies, broken Christmas angels and other once-loved items that have been mislaid, discarded or replaced by hapless, careless and consumer-saturated children.
It’s a fearsome place, too, where toys are organised, Aldous Huxley-style, according to their status – “Unlamented” is particularly purgatorial. With its snowy wastelands that echo with the screams of the unwanted, its train tracks, wooden barracks housing and a hobnailed boot called Crusher, this land feels like an allegory for fascism, if not death itself.
It’s through this ghastly landscape Jack must journey, with the help of a new pig his sister brought him to say sorry, in order to find DP and escape back to the land of the living before, with Cinderella-esque tension, the clock strikes 12 on Christmas Eve.
The reader may well find themselves feeling more than a little lost too as Rowling introduces new characters seemingly on almost every page, not least of whom is the tyrannical Loser, who stalks this nastily magical landscape looking for lost Things to eat and who has got wind of the fact a living boy is among them.
Some details are truly lovely – including a brass compass that shows Jack the way and a whispering poem who gives him advice – yet Rowling, who is not a writer known for her restraint, just can’t help over egging the pudding. The incident-packed second half becomes increasingly conceptually confusing, with John Bunyan-esque characters named Beauty, Hope and Ambition popping up seemingly only in order to moralise (Hope’s owner lost her when she was put in prison for protesting against a dictator).
This is a pity because, when she’s not preaching, Rowling is excellent at stimulating children’s imagination. And she is extremely touching on how it feels to be unloved.
What’s more, when it comes to our addiction to stuff, I can’t help but feel she is onto something. If you despair of Christmas as a celebration of the worst sort of excess, you could do worse than leave this under the tree for your little ones.
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