Reviews /

The Chestnut Roaster

Authored by Eve McDonnell
Published by Everything with Words

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Chestnut Roaster is fast paced romp through a well-realised 1880s Paris with a quick-paced plot which will keep children interested. It is beautiful writing which sings on the page and an interesting main character who might help children to think and talk about the experience of neurodiversity.

Paris must be one of the most iconic cities on earth and that makes it the perfect location for a children’s book. Young readers may not know much about the world in general, or France in particular, but they will have heard of the Eiffel Tower and will be ready to go on a romp with at least some picture in their head to get them going. Eve McDonnell takes this Paris of the imagination and has great fun not only making sure that her characters visit some key sights built also taking them down below the streets into the maze of catacombs beneath the city. As an adult reader, I was taken back to Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, also to John Connelly’s Book of Lost Things. That sense of the world beneath ours not quite mapping onto the world above and being a place where the symbolic and the magical bear more weight than the literal is a rich vein for an expert storyteller to mine – and McDonnell is without question an expert storyteller.

Can Piaf track down the child kidnapper? Can she figure out why her brother has lost his memory? Can she explain why everyone seems to have forgotten the past year? Who is the strange man who is hunting her and what is the significance of the pale child he keeps tethered to him on a chain? There’s a lot going on and a lot of questions to answer. Managing to keep so many plot hares running, keeping the action in the foreground and yet giving plenty of space for atmosphere and poetic description is quite a challenge. Kudos to Eve McDonnell for pulling it off, and to the publishers, Everything With Words and editor Mikka Haugaard, for enabling her to bring it home.

It’s 1888 and the city is alive with stories of children going missing. Piaf, our heroine, is working on the streets selling roasted chestnuts to cover for her brother who is sick in bed with a case of acute amnesia. She suffers from the opposite problem, Piaf remembers everything – she has hyperthymesia – and while this is sometimes a useful plot device, it is clear that the memories constantly moving in her mind and trying to break out of the mental storage apparatus she has constructed to try to organise her inner life is mostly a torment to her. Some children may see aspects of Piaf’s experience as being analogous to living with ADHD. This isn’t a link that the book makes but it’s one that came immediately to me. When she’s trying to shut out the clamour of distraction in her mind, Piaf finds it useful to twist on a button sewn into the lining of her clothes – many children will recognise the way she uses sensory stimulation to control her condition. Hyperthymesia may be a vanishingly rare condition but this book is a nice addition to the growing set of books that centre young people with neurodiversity.

McDonnell’s writing is exquisite. A confident teacher could have a very satisfying time with a group of year six writers, playing with McDonnell’s use of poetic language and exploring how it works. You will find sentence after sentence and passage after passage that you’ll want to reread and savour – almost at random I picked this to share with you:

‘More words bubbled on Piaf’s tongue, but she bit down on them; just like her rattling and stomping memories, she too wanted to scream how the ground had opened her up like a big mouth and swallowed her, threatening her with a swarm of golden eyes before spitting her out.’

Fans of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars will find familiar ground in the action-packed plotting with a magical realist twist. The book may be too strongly flavoured for a child who wants something more true to life but it will be catnip for the child who wants some rich and strange. The illustrations by the remarkable Ewa Beniak-Haremska add to the fever dream atmosphere of the book – double page spreads that explore locations and sequences in the story in a way that is deeply allusive and poetic rather than strictly representational. Think Goya in a Piranesi interior and you won’t be too far wrong. I can imagine myself as a child finding these almost disturbing but certainly compelling.

An adult reader might think some of the Parisian detail is a little on the nose – if there’s a cafe, it has to be ‘Le Deux Magots’, of course the Eiffel Tower is a central location, of course the child is Piaf. But for a child reader many of these references will be new and could deepen and broaden their experience of the book. Again, as an adult reader, I picked up a few plot holes that I might have found it hard to forgive were it not for the incredible writing at the sentence and paragraph level and the control of atmosphere. I suppose, given that the book as a whole is so dreamlike, I should allow dream logic.

The book closes with a really useful set of appendices discussing the illustrations and the references within them, the historical context and more. Any teacher wanting to look at how authors spin gold from straw would find these sections very useful indeed. I would happily use this book with a group of confident readers in upper Key Stage 2. I think that lots of children will find a great deal to like in it. It is a book to really immerse yourself in and one which will make the young reader want to write something like it themselves. Bravo!

Longlisted for the Spark Book Awards 2024 Fiction for Readers 9+ Category