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5.0 1
Making the Hunchback PB&J sandwiches
(Updated: May 11, 2012)
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Plot/Characters/Writing Style
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As an adult reader of books for children, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about voice and audience. I don’t want to read a middle-grade book written for me, the adult who has learned to be cynical, grumpy and analytical. I don’t want to read a middle-grade book that winks at me about how poorly educated modern children are. I want to read a book that doesn’t give a darn about the grown-up who might be reading it. I want to read a book aimed at the heart, soul and mind of a child, a book splashing in puddles without worrying about wet socks, a book sneaking up the attic stairs to find the ghosts, a book utterly certain that the world will end if the boy falls in love with the wrong girl.

FACING THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is narrated by a very grown-up grown-up: a peevish, intelligent, germaphobic janitor at Kingscross University. His frequent asides include vocabulary-building definitions of the more complex words used in the text, critical comments upon the characters and story, advice and insight about how to write a book, and expressions of disgust about dirt and germs. He is a character-narrator, rather than an authorial voice from outside the fictional world created in the book, but even still, his intrusions were so terribly adult and finicky-maiden-auntish that they served only to distance me from the story. They were an insulating layer between the reader and the story, and kept me from growing attached to the twins, or any other character.

The narrative itself however (as distinct from the narrator) is quite good fun. When Quasimodo suddenly appears in their uncle’s abandoned attic lab, twins Olivia and Linus realize they have discovered a magical portal that allows fictional characters to enter the real world. The remainder of the book is about what happens in the few days Quasi (as they decide to call him) is in Kingscross, and the obstacles they face when they try to send him back.

The central idea - bringing characters to life - is a truly intriguing one, especially for those of us who live half our lives in fictional worlds. Who wouldn’t want to meet Lucy Pevensie, Ozma of Oz, Bilbo Baggins or Katness? I certainly would. I’m not sure I would be quite so interested in Quasimodo or Ishmael (from Moby Dick, which is apparently what the next book will focus on). On the other hand, that could be an admission of my limited tastes.

Also, the book raises questions about narrative fate: must Quasimodo, for example, love the unworthy Esmerelda, or can he learn enough in our world to change his future? These are serious questions, about self-determination, fate and character, but they are not probed. Olivia wants Quasi to make a better future for himself, but doesn’t stop to reflect on what that might mean to the story as Hugo wrote it, or all the books ever written which reference that text, or all the thousands of readers who learned to love the innocent, desperate, loving hunchback just as he was written, tragedy and all.

FACING THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME has a lot to recommend it, but I am not sure a younger reader would go to the trouble of working past the narration to find the story.
Good Points
Intriguing central trope
Quasi is a charming character
Readers do love books about readers, reading and stories
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May 16, 2012
Another fabulous review, Francesca. I totally know what you mean here and unfortunately, it doesn't make me want to pick this one up. :(
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