They say you can judge a book by its cover. Well they, whoever ‘they’ might be, are wrong. You can be mystified, intrigued, put-off, or indifferent but judge you cannot. Who really knows what lies within? When the Captain handed me Rebecca Higgie’s The History of Mischief (Fremantle Press, 2020) I was colour-struck. It’s a riot, the cover design – a splurge of bright objects – from dragons, to birds, to human skulls, to lanterns, to roses, to a burning scroll, and a balloon – all flanking a cream lighthouse that arises like a majestic phallus from the pages of a large book. And, as you turn to the back cover, you will not be surprised to find the blurb says: ‘There is madness in it. Yes. But magic too.’
I could not agree more. Yes, magic and madness and a hell of a lot on top of that. In short, Ms Higgie has let loose her imagination and threaded together a wondrous tale – a tale told by a grieving and disturbed nine year-old Jessie, who mourns the recent loss of her parents and chafes under the supervision of her sister Kay, a decade her senior.
How to review this book without giving too much away? That was my first thought when I rolled over the last page. And how should the book be classified? Would it fall under that ubiquitous heading ‘Young Adult’? As a reader – decidedly not young – I know I baulk when recommended something in that category. But, rest assured, the journey upon which we are taken is one that can be enjoyed by fiction lovers of all ages. I could imagine it in the hands of a teenager and I can imagine a great-grandma deriving equal pleasure.
As for the plot, it could be described as Jesse’s very real journey from bereaved child, hostile to those around her, into a world of rapturous imagination – a world, for her, that is far from imaginary. It is both an escape and a quest to solve a mystery. As the title suggests, there is much mischief at stake and the quest revolves around the origins of a book. When cleaning what had been her parents’ house, Kay tugs on a piece of carpet and finds a trapdoor. Jessie tests the keyhole with the key for the front gate and finds that it fits. Underneath the lid, inside a small box, is a book – The History of Mischief. Over the next days and weeks Kay reads chapters to her younger sister.
We – the reader – are taken back into Ancient Greece and Egypt and historical figures such as Diogenes and Alexander the Great. The scene shifts to China in the fifth century and to Poland in the fifteenth. Then we journey to Paris in 1870 and to Addis Ababa a decade or so later. Time shifts in chunks as we move closer towards the present. Meanwhile, Jessie, enraptured with the history of places and persons, becomes a dedicated and obsessed researcher in her school library and the State Library. Oh yes, I forgot to mention – Jessie and Kate live in Guildford, Western Australia. Not only does Jessie research – but she compares the results with what is revealed in The History. Any gaps or disparities leave her puzzled and impatient, as through her eyes the discovered book is the real history.
Across the road from Jessie and Kay reside Mrs Moran and her cat, Cornelius. And at school Jessie (sort of) befriends Theodore an ‘annoying boy’ who also has issues. The two – both ‘disturbed’ in the eyes of adults – form an unlikely alliance.
Jessie is a great character. She is what my mother might’ve called a “young madam”. In other words, opinionated, querulous, impatient, and full of herself. But she is also hurting inside, and poor Kay – and Jessie’s teachers – cop the brunt of her resentment. Kay also struggles but attempts to hide her grief from Jessie, albeit unsuccessfully. And then we have their grandmother, in a nursing home, but mentally alert. Somehow we get to learn that Grandma knows more than she will share.
In the alternating chapters, when we travel back in time, an exuberant cast of actors traverses the screen. Are they real? Did they exist – and how do they tie into Jesse’s story? We will need to keep turning the pages in order to find out, just as Jessie does when she attempts to put on her best behaviour so her big sister and now surrogate mother will pick up the book and continue the story.
The author hits some sweet notes. She takes us into Jessie’s world – a place where curiosity and excitement are tempered with sadness and frustration. And she also takes us into the realms of learning and discovery, where libraries are repositories of wealth and need to be valued as such. All in all, a journey I enjoyed immensely.
You can order your copy online here.
* Based in Fremantle, Bruce Menzies is the author of three novels, a family history, and a recent memoir. Details at BruceJamesMenzies.com