The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
|The Underneath by Kathi Appelt|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: An intriguing, moody story of evil in a very well characterised animal world, and not the cute and cuddlesome book it appears to be. Having said that, this is a strong read for the right audience, and commendable for teens and adults wishing for an absorbing and well-crafted, slow-burning, mysterious book.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: March 2009|
|Publisher: Simon and Schuster Children's|
A calico cat has been abandoned in the bayou country of the USA, and homes in of all things on a bloodhound who sings the blues. She, and the two children she is carrying, form an unlikely family with the dog, crouching permanently underneath the rickety shack owned by a scarred, cruel huntsman. He himself is intent on claiming the valuable skin of an immense alligator he has noticed in the wilderness. But there is something even more ancient, reptilian and horrid, buried imprisoned not too far away…
With a poetic glimpse at all the characters over very short chapters we build up the picture – the cat, the dog, the man, the other beasts, and the kittens who will grow up in this strange world. The book continues to its end in this slightly fractured way, building on mood, impressions and a mystical, mythical back story, to provide an animal adventure book clearly like no other.
Which forces me somewhat to say this book is being mis-sold. Ignore the cover, with its colourful, cutesy critters, and you will still find a whole host of merit in the artful contents, with its distinctive style. It's a mood piece, that offers up emotions (hope, wrongness, fear) as tangible things, and finds very little room in anthropomorphising the animal characters.
There is a fracture in the unlikely family that must be mended, and an over-arching battle against evil to face, but this is not a book for young children to settle down with and giggle at. Instead the cruel world is given us with a strong sense of fear, a slow drip of intrigue, and a fully sustained character.
There remains something else to say as to why this book will not be appreciated by the younger reader – certainly away from its native setting. The vocab features several unusual words, and while some are snakes, other animals or trees, in context, there are still some hindrances, and might cause even the adult to seek a dictionary. 'Catamount', 'pirogue', 'haints' – all have seldom been in children's books I've turned to.
On the other hand, you seldom get such appealing mystery. This is a singular success, if you are in the mood for something that is very much a break from the norm. The animal world is done subtly – things are never at hand, but are at paw, and their mindset is reached in a gentle and realistic way. You will still feel for the hobbled, mistreated dog, and the loneliness of other four-legged characters.
The thrust of the story however is about something much older and longer-lasting than any standard animal, and the gentle mood of the piece, sustained by the slow-fade from scene to scene as opposed to the large, brash jump-cut, and repeated motifs and narration, brings us to the end of a very satisfying story. The way the author dips in and out of scene, timeline, and character again brings me to call the book poetic, and brings me to offer this a strong but guarded recommendation.
To some few this will be a slightly awkward read, and not what they assumed they were buying. To the rest of us, there is a great sense of the unexpected in all regards, and a gem of a rare, individual quality. Should you get misled by the cover, and your children discard it frowning, you will still do a lot worse than reading it yourself.
We at the Bookbag must thank the publishers for our review copy.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Underneath by Kathi Appelt at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Underneath by Kathi Appelt at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.