Tuesday, 21 August 2012

'MUDDLE AND WIN: The Battle For Sally Jones' by John Dickinson

If I described this book as ‘The Screwtape Letters for children’ I would be both spot on and way, way off at the same time. Because even though it’s about a devil and an angel and their battle to possess, or at least influence, the soul of young Sally Jones, it’s not a religious book.  And therein lies its strength.  John Dickinson is too nuanced a writer to fall for a polarised good/evil view of morality. This is not a story about Sin. Perish the thought. Neither is it a story about Being Saved.  It’s a story about the dark side of the mind – the soul, if you will – and the multifarious ways in which we manage to convince ourselves that we’re in the right and everyone else is being totally unreasonable. And it’s funny, and it’s scary, and it’s very, very sharp in its observations of human nature.

Deep down – deep, deep down, Dickinson suggests – everyone has a dark and fiery place within them, accessible from a trapdoor in one of the backrooms of the mind:

There won’t be much light there, and there’ll be things scattered all over the floor.  Most of it’s stuff you’ve always known about but don’t get out and look at too much.  You start clearing it to one side.   Never mind the dust.  Never mind the smell.  (Listen – even the best-kept minds have rooms like this.)  When you find you’re shifting aside thoughts you would never, ever try to explain to anybody – and there will be some – then you’re in the right place.

Underneath it all there’ll be a trap door.  …If it’s locked, you open it.  You have the key, of course.

I love that sinister last line.  Of course we do.  And below the trap door is a dark void, and at the bottom of that – well, we don’t get anywhere near the bottom, all we get to see is the topmost brass towers of the city of Pandemonium (‘They like brass here’) from which the oddly loveable little imp Muddlespot – up till now merely one of Pandemonium’s cleaners – is despatched to do his best, or worst, to corrupt the incorruptible Sally Jones, a schoolgirl so Good that her LDC (or Lifetime Deed Counter) reads:

                        Lifetime Good Deeds: 3,971,570
            Lifetime Bad Deeds: NIL nil NIL nil NIL nil NIL nil

Sally Jones is a poster girl for Heaven. Not only is she Good, she is Popular (except possibly with her twin sister Billie: no one likes to be shown up that much, do they?). 

Because, if your phone was out of credit, you could borrow Sally’s.  If you’d left your maths homework at school, you could call Sally and she would give you the questions. …Her allowance wasn’t great, but if you needed any of it, it was yours.  She’d hear your lines for the school play. And when all was lost and the Head of Year was bearing down on you and your last alibi was blown, Sally would get you out of it.  Somehow.  Without even lying.

Not surprising, then, that the angelic squadrons scramble in her defence. And Angel Windleberry (‘no one watched more sleeplessly, praised more mightily or fought the good fight more fiercely’) is chosen to become Sally’s guardian angel and put Muddlespot to flight.

But the Battle for Sally Jones turns out to be a lot more complicated than either Muddle or Win could ever have anticipated. For one thing, Sally’s got her own strong views on things. Then there’s her sister Billie’s guardian angel and resident devil, who’ve … reached a certain understanding.  There’s a war to be fought over a batch of muffins.  There’s an amoral cat.  And anyway, is it really good for Sally to be That Good?  And if not, can Good sometimes be Bad?

If I had one tiny niggle with the book at all, it's the role of the fiend Corozin, Muddlespot's master.  I'm not entirely sure how he fits into Sally's psyche, and he's so hands-off during most of the book that his appearance at the end (as arch tempter) feels something of a diabolus ex machina. But that's all it was, a niggle.  It's a huge relief to come across such an intelligent, thought-provoking book for children.  Give it to good readers of ten and up.  And read it yourself. It's fast-moving, vivid and funny, there’s not a dull line in it, and I adored it. I think you will too. 

Muddle and Win, by John Dickinson, will be published next month by David Fickling Books. 

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