If you read a lot, you’ll soon find yourself drawn to writers who become personal favourites but who, unaccountably, go unrecognised by the wider world. A little while ago my girlfriend introduced me to a book by one of her own favourite writers, a woman named Joan North. I want to write about North here, because I was impressed by her work and I think she deserves to be better known.
North wrote three books, fantasies for children; what you’d now call stories aimed at the younger end of the YA category. North’s first book, The Cloud Forest, was published in the UK in 1965 and in the US the year after. Her second book, The Whirling Shapes, was published in 1967. Her last book, The Light Maze, was published in 1971 and shortlisted for the 1972 Mythopoeic Award.
I’ve looked for more information online about North, but can find nothing. What I know about her is what’s written on the dust jacket of The Light Maze:
Joan North was brought up in North China but now  lives in North London, “in a household which comprises a mathematical husband, two daughters, and two Siamese cats.” She says that her chief interest is in “what might be called exploring Inner Space.” This preoccupation can be traced in her earlier books, The Cloud Forest and The Whirling Shapes, which, like The Light Maze, bring into an ordinary and often comical picture of everyday life an awareness of other worlds, other modes of being. She likes reading about Yoga, Zen, Christian mysticism and Eastern philosophy.
The jacket for The Cloud Forest also says that North “served in the WAAF during World War II.”
The jacket for The Light Maze accurately describes North’s books, and what’s most notable about them. Her books are fantasies about the irruption of the fantastic and spiritual into the mundane. I think they work because both the real-world settings and the uncanny elements are convincing.
The Cloud Forest follows two children, orphan Andrew Badger, who lives with his adopted mother at a girls’ boarding school named Scarly House, and Ronnie Peters, an imaginative Scarly House student. Andrew has strange, terrible dreams, but soon after meeting Ronnie the two of them find a mysterious ring that is the harbinger of mysterious, supernatural events. They have to find out who to trust as they uncover the secrets of Andrew’s heritage, finding a sinister conspiracy in the process.
The Whirling Shapes is the story of fourteen-year-old Liz, who goes to stay with her Aunt Paula, Uncle Charles, and cousin Miranda when Liz’s mother is put in a sanatorium. Living above them is Liz’s eccentric great-aunt, Hilda Harbottle, friend to a peculiar young painter named James Mortlake, who creates odd and disturbing images of abstract, whirling shapes. The secrets of those shapes have to do with a mysterious house that sometimes appears on the other side of a heath from Liz’s aunt’s home, and in attempting to understand these peculiar visions Liz is soon led into a fearful other world of disturbing powers.
The Light Maze follows twenty-year-old Kit Elton, visiting her mother’s friend’s family, the Nancarrows, in the wake of a failed romance. There, along with young Harriet Nancarrow, Kit becomes involved in the mystery of the disappearance of Harriet’s father two years ago. A strange dream leads Kit into an adventure that seems to stretch beyond the bounds of the real. Can she recover Tom Nancarrow? Or will she be defeated by the darkness that lies within the strange Light Maze of her dream?
So much for summary. What’s remarkable about these books? What makes them fascinating? They’re similar in plot and structure, yet distinct. The main characters may resemble each other, but the supporting characters are varied, and the environments in each story are easily distinguished. Crucially, the fantastic elements are different; there’s a recongisable sensibility connecting the three books, but the otherworldly aspects are all shown from slightly different angles. You can maybe see connections, if you look closely, but the symbolic and emotional relevance of the otherworldly varies from book to book.
In fact, the books do many things right. The characters are individuals, and if sometimes they’re slightly broad they’re also varied — and typically at least show flashes of unexpected distinctive internal lives. The plots are neat without being fussy, establishing a setting and the people in the setting while also establishing a supernatural or extraordinary aspect, then showing that fantasy aspect growing in significance until some final resolution brings out a key element of the main character. Above all, North’s prose is highly readable, light and understated but still very tight; she’s not afraid to tell instead of showing, and the result is that her tales move fast while still presenting a well-rounded world. It’s a clear, gentle style in the best tradition of English children’s writing, charming, effective, and often quite funny.
Two aspects of the books in particular are very strong, and complementary. Firstly, North is able to evoke a sense of community — a sense of characters who have mutual histories with each other, who have perspectives on each other that have developed over time; a sense of people living in a world of people. This sounds simple, but is actually quite difficult. North can create the impression of a village, where people live with each other and have their own ideas on the life choices their neighbours have made, but have too much respect for each other to vent those ideas. Instead, their children get to see bits and pieces of those opinions; which is to say that North is able to present adults from a young person’s perspective.
I find North is also good at her observation of the mundane world of her characters. There’s a distinct feeling of people living in a specific time and place. When Kit Elton in The Light Maze meets her host family, she’s coming from an urban, upscale environment into a rural village; she notices the dust and dirt all around her, and has to adapt to a lack of technology: “In her centrally-heated life she had never seen a coal fire before. Rather like, she thought fancifully, having a small glowing tiger-cub or phoenix for a pet.” It’s a nice image, and it helps set up the Nancarrows’ home — how it’s warmed by stoves here and there, which in turn determine which rooms get used in winter. Kit helps the Nancarrows do the dishes, “something she had scarcely done in her life before as at home they had a dishwasher.” You get a nice sense not only of the character of the Nancarrows’ house, and how Kit sees it, but of what William Gibson would call the uneven distribution of the future.
The second aspect of North’s writing that stands out is her use of the fantastic, and how she conceives of the strange forces breaking into the real. The way she handles transcendence, and the depiction of what I suppose should be called spiritual realities, is nicely done. She finds the right balance between the comprehensible and the indefinable; when we’re introduced to magic, it is numinous and yet also seems to work through symbols which we can understand. It’s left, mostly, unexplained; but there is a sense that human beings can navigate these other realms, that they derive from or are at least connected to something within the human spirit.
North’s magic is perhaps theosophical in its lack of specific rules and its general sense of a higher spiritual realm. But if the themes of her stories seem to come from a deep concern of the author’s, they’re nevertheless understated. There’s no propagandising in these books, no pat moralising. There’s certainly no proselytizing, or sense that she’s making an argument about the nature of reality. North tells stories, and does it well. The rules and relevance of the secondary worlds and transcendant experiences the characters find emerge naturally out of the tale. And North’s presentation of the uncanny is thoroughly grounded in her characters’ perceptions; she’s not afraid to let her characters struggle to explain or even understand what is happening to them.
In fact, The Whirling Shapes in particular seems almost to have traces of Lovecraft in it, with its obsessed painter and oddly-geometrical supernatural entities that appear to have no human connection. It’s an example of how North deftly uses the sense of higher realities impinging on this world to create a sense of unease or dread, how she builds suspense through the mystery of the sudden appearance of the fantastic.
Ultimately, North’s depiction of the this-ness of this world and the other-ness of magic work together because they contrast so well. Because the world she describes is a world that feels real, albeit with the reality of good children’s writing, the manifestations of the supernatural have a credible potency to them.
The books are not without flaws. The first book features a sinister conspiracy, and the dialogue of the villains is perhaps the weakest element of all three stories. The structure of an orphan boy finding his heritage is also very familiar. The later books are surer, and more original, though as I’ve said the main characters tend to recur under different names; the starting situations of both books — a girl in her early teens must go to stay with strangers away from her old home — are also very similar.
It is also true that North tends to avoid presenting direct conflicts. The stories are more about the unravelling of mysteries than heroes struggling against villains. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but does mean that the stories might seem slow to some readers. Personally, I think the measured development of events and the working-out of incidents and unveiling of meanings works, but it may not be what everyone is accustomed to.
Overall, the books feel very much like Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence; they don’t have Cooper’s sense of place, or the overarching plot, but tonally there’s a similar mixture of the fantastic arising from the real. I personally wouldn’t put North at Cooper’s level overall, but she’s respectably close. Madeleine l’Engle is another useful comparison. I’ve mentioned the Inkling Charles Williams in other articles here, and I think his work — though meant for adults — is worth noting as somewhat similar to North’s.
North’s three books are strong works. They’re individual, and try to do fascinating things. They’re well worth reading, for adults or for children, and I wish they would be reprinted.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His new ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.