The Voyage of QV66 / Penelope Lively
London: Heinemann, c1978.
This is one of Lively's children's books that was recommended to me recently by another Lively reader. I never need too much encouragement to pick up one of her books, as I'm a big fan of her writing. But this one had not really come up on my radar yet, so I was pleasantly surprised by my discovery of it.
Lively writes children's books that are fairly complex, in that she doesn't talk down to her readers. She is good at creating an initial situation that is unfamiliar, while not over-explaining things, trusting the reader to catch on as they go along.
This book opens with a strange premise: there are various animals gathering together into a "tribe" of sorts -- a dog (our narrator), a cow, horse, cat, bird and a strange animal who is different from everyone else. Upon discovering this strange brown, furry animal, who is named Stanley, it is decided that they will all travel to London to find out just what Stanley is.
The story of their voyage -- how they do it, and why, and what happens when they get there -- is situated within a Britain that is devoid of people. The QV66 mentioned in the title is a boat that the group of friends finds and claims as a way of getting to London, since most of the countryside is completely flooded, with little hilltop islands left here and there. Stanley, being an unusual kind of animal, thinks and puzzles his way to creating and building new tools and objects, for example, scavenging some wheels and attaching them to the boat so that Ned, the horse, can pull them overland when necessary.
The narrative voice is wry and amusing, and the animals each have their own particular personality which led to some amusing reflections by this reader. Lively creates a backstory for the animals that allows her to comment on some religious and military elements, as well as the most obvious issue of climate change and a great flood. It seemed timely to read this right now, especially as the group reaches London and describe exploring a subway station that is dark and watery and smelly. The flood has left traces of human inhabitation behind that animals everywhere are reusing and repurposing to their own desires.
Once in London, Stanley figures out what kind of animal he is, and that he isn't the only one of his kind. But this is not the cathartic happy ending that he expects; in fact, he is quite put off by his discovery, and rejoins his happy band of friends to continue their journeying ways. In a way, I found the ending satisfying. And in a way I didn't -- as the way forward leads out to sea I found that I was uneasy when imagining what lay ahead for this motley crew.
It was a fascinating read, though. Lively is particularly good at drawing sharp portraits of human foibles, and here she turns that to the new society of animals which has arisen. There is a resurgence of tribalism,with the main lot of creatures being -- literally and figuratively -- sheep. A few of the more clever species, like crows, dogs, and apes, have taken on the role of priests, warriors, or bureaucrats, while others are either followers or very independent creatures in their own right (like Stanley). It seems to hold a mirror up to our own civilization and what we may become in times of crisis. Various animals have decided on their own new rules and means of living, and as many other readers have mentioned, this lends a hint of "Animal Farm" to the tale.
While dealing with serious issues, this story is also simply a good read. The journey to London is the purpose of the story but doesn't bring the happy ending the travellers expect. However, seeing the destroyed landscapes and derelict cities through their eyes was pretty interesting for this reader, and I imagine would be so for juvenile readers as well, who may be trying to puzzle out what exactly the animals are seeing as each incident is recounted. I thought the premise was very well done, and the story was dense with ideas and incidents, making it a perfect source of further discussions for readers too young for Animal Farm.