The Lucky Bottle: I confess that I feel slightly daunted by the task of reviewing this wonderful book. It is a superb, exciting adventure book, which is what I hoped for when I picked it up. The illustrations are effective in every way – extending the story, supporting the reader, adding thrills and pathos and wit. But this is a book that goes beyond that – it plays with ideas and with stories and storytelling. The reader who enters this book world is invited to question and infer and make surprising connections. It is a thoroughly creative reading experience. I loved it.
On the opening page, ten-year-old Jack is on a ship ‘on a wild night of tempest’. On the following page, mainly a powerful illustration of the storm-tossed ship, he is lost. Given hope by his father’s voice, then left in despair as he realises it is just a memory, he is cast ashore, lone survivor of the ship, next to a human skull. All of this is in the first, short chapter, setting the pace for a story that is always full of drama. One reason why it will work brilliantly in the classroom is that it will instantly draw children into the plot and will then hold them in its grip.
Adult readers may begin to spot links which might well pass children by. The huge human footprint, for example, that tells Jack he is not alone on the island, will be familiar. But even here, Chris Wormell is doing something slightly different to what I expected; this is no casual nod to the iconic Crusoe footprint. Rather, in a chapter entitled ‘The Reader’, Jack finds a giant of a man actually reading Robinson Crusoe, commenting on the similarities between the stories, and suggesting Jack call him Robinson. Story is suddenly foregrounded and the reader is very conscious of coincidence and story shaping. It is surprising, almost disconcerting, but definitely intriguing.
Robinson then befriends Jack; he looks after him, tells him his story, and – importantly – teaches him to write. Jack listens to Robinson with some puzzlement, even sometimes scepticism. He asks our questions and even tries to infer what is going on. Are there cannibals? he wonders, to Robinson’s horror. Sometimes, he puzzles over implausibilities in what he hears, and tries to explain away coincidences and plot holes. He behaves, in other words, like a reader of the story.
Then, as he begins to send out the inevitable messages in bottles, he becomes a writer too. As his prowess grows, we watch his story-telling move from a mere ‘Help’ to a basic summary and then to more elaborate narrative. He writes each message across the printed story of Robinson Crusoe. Every bottle then finds its way to old Ma Rollock of Crab Cove, Cornwall. She enjoys Jack’s account, but it is Defoe’s persuasively realistic fiction that enthrals her. Coincidentally, Crab Cove is where Jack first saw the sea, where he found his lucky pebble, where his journey began.
Clearly, this is improbable, impossible, preposterous. But then they discuss the improbability. Somehow, within the logic of the story, it not only becomes almost plausible but spawns a new idea, an even more impossible plan, leading to a whole new adventure. Skeletons, magic potions, hidden treasure, pirates, sharks and shipwrecks are all still to come in this book that revels in its own fantasticality. A tortoise called Caliban is as rooted in the story as is Robinson Crusoe, for this desert island tale deftly weaves in Sycorax and The Tempest too.
It is undeniably clever. But it is also very funny. Often subtle, the humour can suddenly burst into the absurd, as in the fabulous scene where the pirate grows the beard that has always eluded him…. and then continues to grow. It is ‘abominable…diabolical…a monstrous profusion of hair’. It is a hugely enjoyable scene. There is great satisfaction in the ending too, where the ship in the bottle mentioned at the very beginning is finally explained. Even here there is a small twist and the hint of ‘a whole new story’; the whole book is an irrepressible celebration of storytelling.
As I feared. it is hard to do this book anything like justice. It is filled with allusions, contains every expected ingredient of a sea adventure and yet it is utterly original. It is a book to read and relish yourself, and then share with children at the first opportunity.
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