Hello again, friends, and welcome to a very special edition of DFtS! Throughout this series, I have done my best to provide a humorous, or at least mildly amusing, overview of the library profession. I have discussed proper practice for the professional librarian, censorship issues, technology, fuckwits, patrons good and bad, etc, but I have never yet actually reviewed a book for this fine magazine.
Things must change!
So, behold, dear bookworms and bookwormesses, the first in my (intended) series of book reviews: Assam & Darjeeling by T.M. Camp.
Mr. Camp’s novel accompanied me on my recent trip to Cambodia, and it made for a joyful companion indeed! A deceptively simple fantasy that would be of equal interest to adults and teens, Assam & Darjeeling is one of the nicest literary surprises I’ve had in some time.
Well-deserving of comparison to the work of Neil Gaiman, Assam & Darjeeling begins with a terrible accident, which leaves a mother and her two children in a coma. The children are awake outside of their bodies, existing somewhere between life and death. The mother is lost closer to death, and the children decide to descend to the underworld in order to find their mother and bring her back.
Thus begins a story that dances wonderfully from funny to sad, from touching to scary. Along their path, the children come across a collection of characters, many of whom will be familiar to those of you who have read your mythology. There’s even a brief appearance by a certain shaggy-haired songwriter with round glasses.
The author borrows heavily from classical mythology and Dante in his portrayal of the underworld, but the final product is Camp’s and Camp’s alone. This is a modernized view, with pollution and litter, cellphones and cars, in which Charon goes by Charles. This is a world (excuse me, underworld) in which The Darkness has a job washing dishes.
In Camp’s capable hands, the two children come perfectly to life. Of the younger child, the girl, the author says, “She didn’t have a lot of room left over inside for listening, with all her fierceness.” I will gladly read a thousand books in which the boy is the sensitive, intuitive one, and the girl the fighter, before I will read two with the opposite. Assam (not his real name) is a thinker, a boy who is in touch with things that other people are not. Darjeeling (not her real name) is a little badass, who will kick the Ferryman of the Dead in the shin without hesitation.
The depth and literary flesh of the two lead characters is one main draw of the work, but the real star here is Camp’s near-perfect prose. This is a beautifully written book, plain and simple. Few contemporary authors write with such elegance.
All of this is not to say that the book is perfect. It is unfortunately plagued with typos, which is a real shame given the beauty of the writing. I do not understand why Camp chose to refer to the children as “the boy” and “the girl” at first, only to reveal their real names in succession partway into the book. But my complaints are very few, and very minor, when compared to the many truly wonderful aspects of this book.
I highly recommend Assam & Darjeeling, both to libraries and readers. With the charming characters, lovely prose, and two big surprises toward the end, this is a rare book, to be treasured and returned to time and again.