The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz

An extraordinary name, an extraordinary world, and an extraordinary story.

Calamity LeekCalamity Leek lives a closed world, in a sheltered rose garden surrounded by a high brick wall, one of twelve ‘sisters’ being brought up by the grand, imperious ‘Mother’ and her loyal second-in-command, ‘Aunty’.

Their way of life, everything in their world is governed by a book they must learn by heart. It defines their history, their culture, their view of the world beyond the wall. Everything. And what a strange world it is, with its own dialect, distinctive naming conventions, and a lifestyle that is an odd mixture of the mediaeval and the boarding school.

At first I really wasn’t sure if I was in the past, the present or the future. But as the story progressed I saw patterns I picked up subtle hints, and I came to understand exactly where I was.

That was so well done. The story was told entirely from Calamity’s point of view and yet I both could see what was going on and understand that she could not.

One day Truly Polperro did the unthinkable. She climbed and climbed so that she could look over the wall into the wider world. The world where she and her ‘sisters’ would be going one day to make changes for the better. And then she fell.

What did Truly see? Did she ‘injuns’ who patrolled the great forest beyond the world? Did she see ‘demonmales’? The girls’ was to one day go beyond the wall, to help in the fight against the evil hoards of ‘demonmales’ who made the world such a dreadful place.

Truly was gravely injured and in no state to say much, but she made it clear that what she saw was not what she had expected. Opinion among the ‘sisters’ as to just what it was and just what they should do was sharply divided.

Calamity was their leader, the keeper of the book, and she kept faith with ‘Mother’ and ‘Aunty’ and everything they had taught her. But Dorothy was a bright girl, a rising star, and she wanted to look further and find out more.

Who would prevail?

I hoped and prayed that Calamity would recognise the reality of her situation before before it was too late.

Her credulity, her faith in everything she had been taught, was heart-breaking.

Her world was an extraordinary place, bringing together British traditions, Hollywood musicals, European folklore, and a wealth of little touches from here, there and everywhere. It so inventive, so unique and so beautifully realised.

And those girls! They had their own vocabulary, distinctive turns of phrase, there were so many things that made them distinctive. But I understood the different roles they played in their community, how their relationships worked, and all of that rang so very true. They were real human girls, especially as they chattered and squabbled.

This wasn’t an easy book to read, I had to come to terms with a different world, I had to consider so many ideas that were being thrown into the air, I had to take in so many details, but I found that close attention was richly rewarded.

The language, the intensity, the originality. I really can’t compare this to any other book.

I’ve said a little about the world of Calamity Leek, and there is much, much more to be learned from reading her story.

There were a few things that didn’t quite work, a few small flaws in the logic, but overall the story succeeded. And very much on its own terms.

The  richness of the prose, the wealth of ideas, the promise that was always there of much more to come, kept me turning the pages until the very end. A wonderful end that brought everything together beautifully.

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