(Ann) Philippa Pearce The Times Literary Supplement - Essay

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philippa Pearce's book of short stories, What the Neighbours Did, confirms her, if confirmation were needed, as the most important writer for children at the present. It is exceptionally finely written and conceived—indeed it is hard to think of another children's book this year that could be considered in the same class. Such high claims must be insisted on partly because the book seems to make none for itself. It is a collection of stories written over a dozen years or so, in consistently understated and low-keyed tones, describing the quiet lives of country children. Yet its impact is the greater because Philippa Pearce has deliberately dispensed with all the usual props of children's fiction—whimsy, fantasy, magic, talking toys or animals, the looking-glass world of the past. Instead she has limited herself to the severest realism. The unlikeliest event in the volume is Still Jim's return from Little Barley in his bath chair…. It is probably significant that this particular story, "Still Jim and Silent Jim" was the earliest of these tales to be written. The later pieces reject even this degree of delicate farce in favour of simpler, more ordinary activities—getting up in the middle of the night, picking blackberries, retrieving an old tin box from a pond.

Yet everywhere the commonplace surface of life is parted to reveal the deeper mysteries of existence. Like Sausage, the short-sighted hero of "Return to Air", we are invited to peer into the dark and unknown depths beneath the familiar pond. Like Dan, fascinated by the freshwater mussel that burrows into the sand so rapidly, we too are fascinated by the contrary urges that emerge and disappear again in the different characters of the tales. The most poignant and moving of them all, "Lucky Boy", is an exploration of frustration and disappointment, a day wasted, a paradise lost. It is easy enough for the critic to recognize traditional themes and patterns handled in these stories, but their lively presentation of familiar experience also gives them a very immediate appeal to children….

What the Neighbours Did has those classical qualities of seriousness and profundity which make most writing look tawdry by comparison.

"Quiet Country Lives," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3692, December 8, 1972, p. 1490.∗