Hi Virtually Readers! I really enjoyed writing a post about Emily St. John Mandel’s books the week before last and it made me think that I should do a bit of a series or group reviews, which are more fun and interesting to write in some ways than single reviews. So it’ll be Ingo this week and Naomi Novik next time and maybe Madeliene L’Engle and Zadie Smith after that—a blend of new-to-me authors and rereads. Anyway, the Ingo books are ones which I treasure deeply, so much that I hauled them back to New Zealand from India. I appreciate their whimsy and wisdom just as much now as when I was 8 and 11.
In some ways the Ingo Chronicles are the defining books of my childhood. I have always loved the ocean, and for many years I lived very far away from it. It was appropriate that I reread them over the last few weeks, just as the air and water warmed up enough for me to go swimming again. I used to swim and swim and press my legs together and pretend they were a tail. In fact, a few years ago I wrote a short story about mermaids. Helen Dunmore’s ability to take mermaids seriously, so that they are not just humans with tails or glittery sex appeal, is note worthy.
If you haven’t heard of the Ingo Chronicles, here’s a brief primer: they are the story of a girl called Sapphy (Sapphire) and her brother Conor, who live in Cornwall. Their father disappears, and a year later they meet Faro and Elvira (brother and sister), who are Mer, and enter the world of Ingo. As people of mixed human and Mer heritage, they get tangled up in all sorts of Mer drama and adventure.
One thing I particularly noticed as I reread these books is that they are children’s books. The themes are not particularly subtle. There is a degree of simplicity to the plots. The print is large, and the books are quick to read. That’s not a bad thing, though. Helen Dunmore was also an acclaimed poet and writer of grown-up books—which I hope to read soonish, incidentally—and that absolutely comes through. The language is languid and lovely and precise. The words are not particularly long, but the metaphors and phrases are lovely, and I totally appreciated them.
The themes are pretty obvious—there are lines like ‘there’s too many folk that rush round helping other so they won’t have to look at what needs help in themselves’ or ‘You think that the choice lies in being mer of being human […] that’s not the way to healing. Be this or that or you’ll be safe. No. It’s people like you who hold the key to the future.’. Both of those lines were delivered by Granny Carne, a fairly typical ‘wise old woman’ character, who is full of utter zingers. These are stories about the things that children care about: belonging, family, their place in the world. But the things that children care about are also the things that older people care about for all that we pretend that we’re more sophisticated and won’t put it so blatantly in the books we read. There’s so much wisdom in these books.
On rereading this series, I realised that one of the reasons I so enjoyed this as a child was that the stories are fundamentally about being in-between two places. I felt for a long time that I, or the people in my family, were the only ones who grappled with that. But I was at a literary festival last weekend and someone said that everyone is trying to reconcile their idiosyncratic identities, and that sort of cemented something I’ve been slowly learning all my life. Everyone has that idea that they don’t quite fit in anywhere, that they belong in multiple places or with various plaes, even if that looks a bit different for everyone. Sapphy and Conor are trying to figure out how to belong in two worlds, and so am I and so are you. Their journey is a bit more literal than the rest of us, perhaps, but no less true for it.
One thing I really liked about these books is that they’re really non-violent. In the first book, Ingo, the plot is mostly the tension between Earth and Ingo, which culminates in Sapphy and Conor having to save the life of someone they don’t like, and along the way learning to see the adults around them as more complex than they gave them credit for. The character—their mum’s new boyfriend—is a pretty typical one for children’s books, but I like that he was really kind and tried hard, and the way that Sapphy’s reaction to him evolves over the series. In the second book, Sapphy and Conor see that Ingo is powerful, and have to keep the forces of earth and ocean in balance and negotiate their own relationships along the way. In The Deep, the third book, they must confront a monster—but they do not want to kill him, and the only way they can satiate the monster is by seeing it as, in some ways, one of them. it is a monster that “would have less power over [them] if it knew less about [them]’, which feels very relevant to, say, Facebook. And in the fourth book, The Crossing of Ingo, they must realise that their relationships change, and that that’s okay, and that it is possible to fully belong to two places.
The setting of these books is always vivid and lovely, and they made me dream of the wild cold water of the Cornwall coast Sapphy has lots of problems but she also loves where she lives. Helen Dunmore paints this idyllic village environment, but she also has details about pubs and late buses and surf shops that keeps it real. Sapphy is just such a great main character. I love how torn she is because I relate! And her relationship with her brother was done really well.
There’s a fifth Ingo book, Stormswept, which features entirely different characters, but it has twins. I was very excited about it when it came out, and I still want to reread it (because it’s about twins on an island. Jacob Have I loved meets Ingo, yesss), but the core series is just so good. It’s easy to read, it’s definitely compelling, and it survives rereading, which is quite remarkable. I am so glad that these books exist, and glad for the sea, and glad for all Helen Dunmore gave us.
What are your favourite books from your childhood? Do you think you’d want to reread them? And what’s a book you love about mermaids or the sea? Tell me in the comments!