Book review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Adventures are usually supposed to be fun, giddily exciting undertakings, thekind of thing that The Famous Five or The Lord of the Rings cohort set out on (though admittedly the latter group did have the weight of theworld on their shoulders, what with ending great evil and all that) and from which thrilling and inspiring stories come.

Supposed to be.

What Hepzibah aka Zib and Avery, two kids who despite living on the street don’t meet until a set of extraordinary circumstances thrusts them together, discover one quite ordinary day in A. Deborah Baker’s Over the Woodward Wall, is that not all adventures are the stuff of happily-confected legend.

In fact, after their usual routes to quite different schools – despite living only three doors apart, they have always walked in separate directions and thus never crossed paths – become unavailable after a broken water main and gas main respectively (all a tad too convenient; is someone behind it all?) block their way and they are forced up a street at the end of which sits a solid brick wall that by rights can’t be there, they find out that adventures can often be quite dark and nightmarish and not at all something to be relished.

Zib, by nature of her bohemian upbringing is better placed than carefully cultivated Avery to withstand the shock of something unexpected and quite untoward.

Brought up by hippy parents who believe in letting Zib chart her own course and used to spend her days in mismatched clothing wandering through the forest that sits behind the street on which she and Avery live, she isn’t initially fazed by their shared descent into a wild and woolly forest on the other side of the wall.

“Avery stopped in the middle of the road, scowling. Zib looked content, almost, like this was was normal, ordinary—like this was the world was supposed to be, and not proof that something had gone terribly, horribly, awfully wrong. Roads weren’t supposed to glow, or to follow people. Flocks of crows weren’t supposed to turn into girls, and girls weren’t supposed to turn into flocks of crows. Berries weren’t supposed to be as pink as sugar candy, and somehow that was the worst offense of all, because it was such a small one. Everything else had been a huge offense, mudslides and monsters and monsters and boulders that talked and owls that gave advice. It had been like walking in a terrible, complicated, frustrating dream. But this …” (P. 83)

Avery, however, very much is.

A young kid born to parents for whom everything is controllable and definable, he goes to school in carefully pressed everything, a child who loves routine and a life devoid of any and all surprises.

For someone like him, who is all order and regimented everything dropping into the Up-and-Under as they discover it is called is anything but an adventure when everyone you encounter either wants to enslave or kill you or if they do help you, comes with suspect loyalties and dubious intent.

Sporting a distinct Alice in Wonderland vibe but very much its own gloriously wonderful creation, Over the Woodwall Wall is a companion novel to Seanan McGuire’s critically-acclaimed Middlegame, itself a book with a fantastical story and impressive sense of otherworldly time and place.

As you journey into Up-and-Under with Avery and Zib, who quickly realise they not only must become friends but support each other in a strange world where the usual rules and logicalities don’t apply, you can understand why any idea of adventures being fun and escapist quickly depart the minds of both kids.

Seanan McGuire who writes under the pen nameof A. Deborah Baker for her children novels (image courtesy Wayward Children Wiki)

What does transpire though is a very clever exploration of how two kids react when the world they know literally vanishes from view and they have to make their way in a place where girls are made of a murder of crows and it is possible for people to exist deep underground in frozen chambers that only allow entry, Brigadoon-like, once a century.

This is not the safe suburban world in which Avery usually hesitantly exists and the forest paradise that provides a solace for Zib when her parents have all but forgotten her, and Baker doesn’t for one second pretend they are adapting without incident to their changed and extraordinarily strange circumstances.

For reasons of narrative convenience, you can well understand why a writer would want their protagonist, no matter their background, to adapt fast and furiously to their new, fantastical locale; it keeps things humming along nicely and mean you are not weighed down by the character/s taking their own sweet time coming to grips with the fact that they, to draw on another fantasy icon of longstanding, are not in Kansas anymore.

Baker doesn’t go down this route at all.

While the narrative keeps moving at a pleasingly brisk pace, both Avery and Zib are allowed to react as any normal kid would when kings and queens of differing aptitude and goodness are after you and when a weird, icy and malevolent collector of people has caged you like you’re an animal for an exhibit.

These are not normal things to happen to anyone, least of all two kids, and Baker doesn’t pretend they are, providing plenty of welcome opportunities for Zib and Avery to freak out, yell at each other, be there for each other and generally wish they were back at home, snug and safe in a world where giant owls don’t engage you in conversation, regardless of how pleasant or semi-helpful they may be.

“She was impossibly beautiful, She looked like sunshine on a Saturday, like chocolate cake and afternoons with no homework. She had a smile like a mother’s praise, all sugar and softness, and Zib stared at her, wanting nothing more than to throw herself into those welcoming, unfamiliar arms.” (P. 105)

Over the Woodward Wall is a giddy modern joy of a fantasy novel that nevertheless feels happily old world too.

Amusingly full of quirky characters and a narrative voice that is playful, cheeky and a little dark, the novel feels , for those of us of a certain age like all the escapist treasures you read growing up and for kids, a diverting trip into the weird and occasionally wonderful that takes them right away from the grim realities of a world full of virus and warming climate.

As a piece of reality defying writing, Over the Woodward Wall is brilliant, neatly balancing light and dark, seriousness and good humour, and always keeping the humanity that courses through its unpredictably offbeat veins very much top of mind.

That is key, of course; for while it is entertaining to read about all manner of strange and weird people and creatures, whose sensibilities and outlook divert considerably from our own, and all from the safety of our favourite reading nook, none of the vivacious imagination at work here would mean a thing without a real, tangible sense of humanity at its heart.

Zib and Avery are often in real danger or deeply, truly frightened or unable to find a way home, and you are with them every step of their gravity-defying way because Baker goes to the trouble to make their reactions and subsequent wholly, winningly, relatably human, infusing this most remarkable and immersive of fantasy novels with a vibrant otherness and heart that make one of the top enchanting reads of a year which desperately needs some sense of escapist diversion.

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