In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll: Rooting for Alice

“…I fight the urge to run. I’m not a chicken. It’s only a load of old trees. Making myself breathe normally, I walk back towards the gate. I’m nearly there, nearly calm again, when to my left I see something white flicker between the trees. Quick as it appears, it’s gone.

There’s someone else in this wood.”

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In Darkling Wood

A story of magic in a very real world, Emma Carroll’s In Darkling Wood can make anything feel possible. Suitable for readers of nine years plus.

When her mum gets a call in the middle of the night with news of a heart donor for her little brother, Alice is as prepared as she can be. She’s worried for Theo of course, but clear on how lucky they all are to have had a compatible heart become available. Alice can be forgiven for thinking this will be the sum total of her upheaval for the next few weeks, as that would after all be quite enough to cope with. What she finds out though, on arriving at the hospital, is that she won’t be staying with her best friend as she previously assumed, but with her paternal grandmother: a woman she wouldn’t recognise if she passed her in the street.

Root Cause

This is what brings Alice to Darkling Wood. Darkling Wood- what a great name. Already exciting. Don’t you just love books that uproot the protagonist and place them in new settings, new situations? Children’s writers are particularly brilliant at this: think of CS Lewis and the Pevensie children, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s removal of Mary Lennox to Yorkshire, and of course Alice discovering Wonderland. Now we have Emma Carroll’s Alice in Darkling Wood, a new addition to this theme, and one that fits very well into our modern world.

The reason behind Alice’s relocation is solid, grounding, real-life stuff that draws us to her side and has us hoping for a good outcome. Instead, she finds she has even more to contend with. Firstly, she is stranded with her Grandmother Nell, away from the modern comforts of mobile signal and internet access- to all intents and purposes, already in the past. Secondly, it turns out that Granny is about as popular with her neighbours as Brian Blessed in a library, having decided to cut down the ancient woodland surrounding her house. The locals consider Darkling Wood to be not only beautiful but magical and mysterious too, something Alice can already feel for herself. Nell however, sees only the encroaching trees and imminent risk of damage to her property. This makes Alice by association unpopular at the school she has had to join whilst she stays in the area, which isolates her in ways she’s never experienced before.

Thank goodness for Flo then, a girl around her own age who she meets in the woods and appears to be from the local traveller camp. She might be a little bit eccentric, with her red coat and talk of fairies, but at least she’s on Alice’s side. This is just the beginning of Alice’s adventures, and ours too as we are given insights into not only Alice’s world, but also another one that began nearly one hundred years ago…

Family Tree

Emma Carroll is a wonderful storyteller and with In Darkling Wood she has taken quite a gollop of different aspects- the past and the present, the real world and a magical alternative- and blended them seamlessly into Alice’s story. There’s also a sensitively handled take on modern family life, with not only illness included but also estrangement and disunity. Less skilled writers could find this much information hard to handle in a three hundred page book, but in Emma Carroll’s hands it feels real, which of course is all good and proper, as life doesn’t hand you experiences sequentially, rather preferring the layering option. As a reader, it feels very natural and easy. It’s only in recalling the plot for this review that I fully realised how cleverly written it is. As for the magic, we can only hope for a little of that in our own lives and until then, escaping into books like In Darkling Wood is the closest possible thing.

In Darkling Wood shows us that magic can be closer than you think.

Themes for Teachers

As ever, Emma Carroll gives fresh insights in history, this time focussing on The First World War from the perspective of the family left at home. Other themes teachers might want to explore through the text are Alice’s transitions, to another school and also staying with an unknown relative. In Darkling Wood also considers environmental issues and how people respond to them and is an excellent book for sparking conversation on different points of view and empathy. Classes could have lots of fun developing their own family trees as they consider Alice’s, as there is opportunity to explore the metaphor of the threatened woodland and Alice’s own precarious family situation. I’d recommend this as particularly lending itself to Year Six pupils because of the aspect of transition but also as a way of bringing a little magic to their last year in primary, which is the least we can do.