I decided to take a short break from my trek through the world of Redwall for two reasons, firstly to avoid overdosing on Jacques and secondly because I have a special reason for wanting to read this book. One of the two writing projects I have brewing away, an as-yet-untitled Victorian yarn, is inspired by stories that play on The Borrowers’ central inspired idea – tiny characters living, hidden in a big human world. It’s a setup I’ve loved since childhood and there are no shortage of such stories. To name a few: Terry Pratchett’s Nomes trilogy, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Pixar’s Ratatouille, The Legend of Zelda – The Minish Cap, and most importantly Disney’s forgotten classic The Great Mouse Detective, which will be the subject of my first film review very soon. I have vague memories of watching Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton in the BBC miniseries adaptation of Mary Norton’s Carnegie Medal winning 1952 book but have curiously never read it until now.
The Borrowers begins with a little girl called Kate listening to a story told by elderly Mrs May who recounts the claims made by her brother about a time he spent in an old house near Leighton Buzzard (Mary Norton’s hometown) while recovering from illness. The narrative then switches to the Clock Family, Pod, Homily and Arrietty, tiny mouse-sized borrowers who live under the floorboards beneath the house’s grandfather clock.
Chances are that if you don’t know the story of The Borrowers you will know the premise. The term ‘borrower’ has long since entered pop culture due to the simplicity and irresistible charm of the idea. Kids of course will be enchanted by the concept of little people inhabiting the underfloors and wallspaces of houses and the rest of us can appreciate the borrower myth because we’ve all misplaced things and everybody is convinced that they have borrowers. This is the key to The Borrowers. It’s not just the little people that work so well but what they do.
It’s a short book and not one with a meandering plot but it doesn’t need one because the whole idea of ‘borrowing’ has all the momentum the narrative needs. The Clock family’s home is furnished with all sorts of nicknacks and trinkets Pod has managed to borrow from the house and Mary Norton’s imagination has done a fine job of considering what small everyday items might becaome for borrowers. Matchboxes become chests of drawers, postage stamps are used as pictures to hang on the wall as decoration, upturned drawing pins make for perfect candle-holders and of course the contents of a doll’s house are the perfect size for borrowers to make real use of. The attention to detail is great, it’s a real treat to lose yourself in this tiny world.
The plot concerns young Arrietty’s first forays into borrowing and her meeting with the aforementioned nine-year-old boy. Along the way we get plenty of detail about other borrower families that once inhabited various nooks and crannies of the house and are given a pretty vivid picture of the perils a borrower faces. Big things happen to the little people by the end and the final line will make you think about the power of imagination.
The writing style is a little dated but the central idea will never age, nor will the scope for what the characters can do, so it’s no surprise that this book has no fewer than four sequels. I have copies of the first two of these knocking around so expect reviews at some point in the future. No doubt I’ll track down the others at some point too.
Timeless entertainment that can be enjoyed by young and old. The premise is strong enough to run on its own but Mary Norton hasn’t rested on her laurels delivering detailed justice to to an idea that really deserves it.