24 Hours by Margaret Mahy
|Margaret Mahy - RIP|
Margaret Mahy who died in July last year – 2012 – at the age of 76 was one of the most underrated writers around. From the number of awards that she had won (Carnegie Medal in Literature, Phoenix Award, Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing, etc.), one can tell that the experts obviously recognise the quality of her writing but she is not very well known amongst today’s youths.
Which is a shame because she writes exquisitely. When I think of Margaret Mahy, I think of lyrical writing. There are some prose writers who write like poets. Tan Twan Eng is one of them and Margaret Mahy was another. It is very difficult to find clichés in her writing for she approaches each word in a unique fashion, going to the core of the word, and the result is a freshness of the English language one rarely finds in today’s storybooks.
Many of Mahy’s books are written for young adults and they deal with the themes of growing up and learning about oneself in the process of maturation. 24 Hours, however, is slightly different from her other books which usually contain elements of the supernatural. 24 Hours does not hold any trace of the supernatural at all. Instead, the magic of the book comes totally from Mahy’s fine writing and sharp characterisations.
The main character, Ellis, is on the verge of a new chapter in his life. He has finished high school and is due to enter university soon. The only blot in his perfect life is the recent suicide of his best friend. One day, he goes to town to spend an evening and just as he has decided to watch a film, he runs into an old friend, Jackie. Then begin the strangest 24 hours in Ellis’ life – hence the title of the book.
Jackie brings Ellis to gatecrash a party and at the party, Ellis meets two sisters, Leona and Ursa. From the party the quartet – Ellis, Jackie, Leona and Ursa – adjourn to the sisters’ home, The Land of Smiles, which is a cheap motel in a slummy part of town. There he meets the third sister, Fox, and the sisters’ guardian, Lewis Montgomery as well as an assortment of strange characters.
Conventional story: Shelley, a baby that the three sisters have taken in, is kidnapped by an unknown person. Our characters try various means and ways to get back the baby.
But if that is all, 24 Hours would simply be an entertaining book. However, none of Margaret Mahy’s books are just ‘simply’ entertaining. Her books always have a deeper message for the careful reader.
The story behind the story: Ellis is one of the ‘shiny’ people. A boy from an upper-middle class family with above-average intelligence and good looks. He is going to university soon and if life pans out for him as planned, he’ll be successful in his chosen career and have a happy family life. In the 24 hours detailed in the book, he comes across a set of people he would never have even noticed in his life if not for the unusual circumstances. These are the so-called ‘losers’, people who live on the periphery of society.
However, Ellis soon realises that very often, these so-called ‘losers’ are unable to progress in life because they are damaged from some personal tragedy. The sisters suffered an immense family tragedy when they were children which led them to being adopted by Lewis Montgomery. But Montgomery also has his own issues to deal with. And even Jackie, who comes from the same social stratum as Ellis, is scarred from being unable to fit in with the expected mould of the upper-middle class and so takes refuge with these outcasts and misfits.
The reader, along with Ellis, learns to open his eyes and views the ‘rejects’ of society with new insight and compassion. Although the story is set in New Zealand, the values it espouses are universal. Even in Singapore, we hardly ever give a second glance to the old cleaner who clears our dishes and cleans the tables in food courts and hawker centres. And as an ex-teacher in primary schools, I must confess that I had my moments of impatience with students who would not do their work or simply had problems learning. How many of them have stories that deserve a listening ear? We are so busy in our quest to be one of the ‘shiny’ people that very often, we neglect the ones who silently need our understanding.
What is even more beautiful is Mahy’s suggestion that such understanding cuts both ways. When we learn to understand the struggles faced by the people wandering along the boundary, we also see our own struggles in a new light and learn to be kinder to ourselves. Thus, as Ellis offers his help and sympathy to the denizens of The Land of Smiles, the events and people that Ellis encounters also heal him to some extent and help him to come to peace with his best friend’s death.
Once again, in 24 Hours, Margaret Mahy shows why she is a master at storytelling. Apart from her fine prose, her keen observations of life and deft ability to spin several story arcs which she would then tie neatly into a beautiful bow combine to give us a touching coming-of-age story which resonates with truth and emotions.
Recommended for readers 12 years and above