Read in time, for the 1968 club but bang-slap in the middle of my reviewing hiatus…..
Pressure of work had kept me away from reviewing for a good two months, and I have no idea, even now, when the reviewing backlog will get cleared, particularly as everything hots up again, work-wise, almost imminently.
Nonetheless, at the time I was keen to dig out from my shelves, and re-read, Madeleine L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns, which had been published that year
I had discovered L’Engle, primarily a children’s writer, as she would have been categorised, in the seventies. Her Newbery Medal winning book, A Wrinkle In Time, was published in 1962. This prize is awarded for ‘the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children’. The book was described as ‘a mixture of fantasy and science fiction’ Now, there are of course a lot of books written as ‘Young Adult’ these days, but this was a more unusual book at its time of writing, and the combination of mysticism, philosophy and rather horrifying, not to mention trippy vision, made this a book which was eagerly read by those who were turning on, tuning in and dropping out. ‘An evil planet where all life is enslaved by a huge pulsating brain’ could almost be a dire warning of technology to come, with the ‘brain’ one designed by us, but with capabilities far beyond those of its creators.
L’ Engle’s combination of scientific interest, rationality on the one hand (one side of the brain) and her spirituality and mysticism on the other, was one (and still is, in many many ways) which resonated very strongly with me. L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a Christian, and certainly active faith features strongly, with the Church seen as a powerful potential force for unity. L’Engle’s strong interest in science, and her Episcopalian faith meant that the right leaning fundamentalists within Christianity disapproved strongly of her writing, which was frequently banned from Christian bookstores. Her belief that
“All will be redeemed in God’s fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones.”
would never have found (and perhaps will never find) acceptance by those who like to believe that some are more equal than others
So…..after a long introduction to L’Engle, whom I have been inspired to further read, or re-read, thanks to the initial push by the 1968 Club, what about this 1968 book?
L’Engle effectively wrote a couple of series of books, which do touch each other, through the meeting or cross-appearance of characters in one or other series. One series primarily concerns the artistic and scientific Austin family, the ‘Chronos books’ The Austin’s are the main players in this book. The other series of books feature the Murry and O Keefe families, the ‘Kairos books’ A Wrinkle In Time belongs to this series
The Young Unicorns is set in New York, at its time of writing. Dr Austin is a scientist working on a laser micro-ray, which has huge potential for use in healing. However, there are others who become more interested in how the micro-ray might be used as a means of social control, a way of offering some manipulation of the pleasure and reward centres of the brain. Very Brave New World, but without the need for medication to be taken.
Dr Austin is an extremely kindly, moral man, but has a certain naiveté about him. The whole family is strongly musical, and have taken a gifted young violinist, Emily, into their home, while her scientist father, a colleague of Austin’s, is working abroad. There is a challenge for Emily and the Austins. Emily was blinded during what appeared to be a robbery at her home. The robbery appeared linked to the work Austin and others were engaged on.
In the bath Emily was singing. Vicky had learned that Emily did two kinds of singing: when she was happy she invented her own melodies; when she was angry or upset she picked more formal themes from the composers she was studying. Bach always indicated deep and serious thinking, coming to terms with some kind of problem. Chopin and Schumann were indications of self-pity, but were seldom heard. A purely intellectual problem, like trouble with her studies or memorizing from the unwieldy Braille manuscripts was apt to be approached with Beethoven or, by contrast, Scarlatti
Also at large in New York are a group of bad lads, the Alphabat Gang. Worryingly, this group appear to be more organised and manipulated than would be expected. Their numbers are growing. Even more worrying, there appears to be something rotten in the state of the Christian community which centres on New York’s cathedral. Some struggle for power is going on, and forces of light and darkness link both the Church itself and the Institute which Dr Austin works for.
And then, a mysterious genie appears, offering to grant one’s wishes, when the Young Austins, mooching around in an antique shop, rub an old Aladdin’s lamp………But this is not, in any way, a book about ‘magic’ – so what is going on?
This is a crime and mystery thriller, a good and thoughtful one. In many ways, her thoughtful depth and intelligent expectations of and for her young readers, (and older ones!) reminds me of Philip Pullman
Unfortunately, this book only seems to be available now in the UK as a collectable, second hand – without even market place copies at reasonable price. But, for those of you who pleasurably rifle through the shelves of second hand bookshops and charity shops, I really encourage you to snaffle up this, or any other L’Engle
Or head over Stateside, where that large Amazonian store has several market place copies, reasonably priced…..though shipping costs might render this advice stupid
Meanwhile…..Searching for some Scarlatti, finding the heavenly Hewitt, has sent me a scurrying for her two Scarlatti albums. Eagerly awaiting…expect musical reviews. The discs are not available as MP3s, so this YouTube offers the best chance.