Minor spoilers for A Wrinkle in Time.
I first read this book nearly thirty years ago. It stands out in my memory as one of the few books I read at that age – perhaps eight or nine – that I actively didn’t like: I can remember trying to, and feeling it was the sort of book I ought to like, but simply not really getting it.
At the time I think I dismissed as being an odd American book; it wasn’t one that was a topic of conversation among my friends. But recently I became aware it was something of a classic (a film was mad and there was an upsurge of people talking about how they’d loved it when they were young and was the film good) so decided to give it another go. Having now read it again aged thirty-six, I both see that it is indeed good, bu also why I didn’t get on with it – because wow, this is a book that doesn’t dumb down or pull its punches!
I’d plenty of other reasonably advanced books at that age; including ones that in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure and complexity would be clearly more difficult than this. I’d certainly read The Hobbit, Watership Down and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; depending on the precise age I read it I may also have read Lord of the Rings and Huckleberry Finn. But there are a number of factors which made A Wrinkle in Time more challenging:
- It doesn’t dumb down in any way. There’s one character that speaks entirely in quotes from Homer, Goethe, and so on in the original language (albeit with translation) and the general tone of the book is – very effectively – one in which it’s clear that the children have stumbled into something that they, or any human, can barely understand.
- You have to work to figure things out. There’s a very subtle hint early on, in the kitchen, that the Mrs Ws are seeing things in more than our three dimensions. The theme of them looking like, but not being, witches, and indeed to their angelic nature, is hinted at far more than said outright.
I suspect I largely coped with these, even if I didn’t get all the references I do now. But the following were trickier as a child:
- The explicitly religious nature of the books, where the good ‘power’/’magic’ is very openly derived from God and the characters are engaged in a struggle against (literally) demonic adversaries. I was familiar with the Bible but had never to my knowledge(1) come across this in a book before, and can recollect finding it really hard to grock how this was compatible with the more classically science fiction elements.
- The enemies are really creepy. Fights, chases, prisoners, dragons and lopping off heads are all – for me – much less disturbing to read about than an enemy who will essentially take over your mind and turn you into a different person. These scenes – the essence of the confrontation, which takes up a good portion of the book – are incredibly well-written to the extent that I still find them disturbing to read as an adult.
- There are no relatable characters. It’s a bold decision by L’Engle to have her three main characters as all exceptionally bright children, all presenting in different ways – and to her credit she does it very well, perhaps too well. I was obviously bright myself, and generally loved books where clever children did cool things (e.g. Mathilda), but could find none of these connectable. Charles Wallace is presented as having literally super-human levels of genius including spiritual powers; Meg does badly at school and is being bullied for being stupid as well as for the scandal of her missing father (I’m aware now that some bright children do do badly at school for reasons very similar to Meg; at the time I found it bizarre and odd); and Calvin is about fifteen and good at sports (with hindsight, Calvin is most relatable: ‘normally’ clever in a way that shows through at school and while I wasn’t sporty, I did at that age also manage to be reasonably popular by just not talking about some of the things that interested me – but again, incomprehensible at age 8 or 9). Interestingly, I had no trouble at all enjoying books where the characters were nothing like me, such as Tom Sawyer, or Martin the Warrior, or Angharad Crewe, or Jennings, or Alice – I didn’t need relatable characters – but the sting here was that I was being told these characters were meant to be children like me (clever) and yet they so clearly weren’t. (It’s worth noting as well that Meg is contending with various sorts of near-pre-pubescent emotional issues which don’t necessarily make her sympathetic, even if they are depicted well and realistically, which they seem to be).
If this all sounds very negative, it’s not meant to be – it’s intended as an exploration of why a book that is very good is one that I really didn’t like as a child. I do wonder what would have happened if I’d read it just a year or two later: would I have liked it, or would the religious dimension and the sinister mind-domination still have been too much for me?
Because this is a very good book. It has great depths, with multiple layers to what many of the characters say and what is going on. It presents a wonderfully tantalising picture of a great cosmos in struggle that we can only grasp at. In the Mrs Ws, it has one of the best and boldest depictions of angelic-level figures, and what they might really be like if they tried to relate to us, I’ve come across. It explores some interesting concepts in space and time. and it has a very realistic (too realistic?) depiction of a family struggling with all too human relational challenges – and yet bound together by real love – in the midst of it.
The comparison to Lewis is obvious – not Narnia, because it’s nothing like Narnia – but some of his other writings: The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, all of which are attempting to depict something he knows we can’t really grasp – and, like Lewis, I feel L’Engle does an impressive job.
If you’ve not read it, it’s worth a try:
(1) At that point I hadn’t spotted the religious elements in Narnia.