A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M Harris (illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins)

Publisher  - Gollancz

Publication date - Out Now

Price - £12.99 Hardback

I am as brown as brown can be,

And my eyes as black as sloe,

I am as brisk as brisk can be,

And wild as forest doe,

(The Child Ballads, 295)

So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape

In the 19th century there was a recognition that many ancient ballads passed down the ages in England and Scotland were at risk of fading out of history. The Child Ballads were an attempt to write down those tales/songs before the oral storytellers died out. They reflect tales that have been passed down in villagers for centuries and represent a mythology some may not be aware of. This tale is believed to be from Scotland. Joanne Harris takes the story and gives it a unique fantasy tale that mixes the old world with a slightly modern perspective.

Our narrator is a young woman who belongs to the Faerie in Scotland this magical group who have the power to change into any creature; have a rather stand-offish relationship with Humans (known as the Folk). Although they are dimly aware of each other its well known the two cannot mix.  Until a fateful day in May when our Faerie Girl helps save the life of the local Lord’s son William . They become obsessed with each other and there is a brief relationship that turns sour. The Girl realises that William ultimately puts his family privilege above her and that to him there are many young ladies the local Lord can try to seduce. Over the course of the year The Girl then must firstly win back her abilities to transform and then plan retribution.

It sounds a simple tale, but I think Harris has made some additions that make this a unique reading experience. The Faerie culture we see The Girl belongs to is fascinating we see them at markets, Halloween and throughout the story with characters such as the Old Hawthorne Tree/Woman we sense a bigger legend these events are just a mere part of. I really liked how the concept of shape shifting is done here and the descriptions of the various creatures the girl are evocative. That sense of the bigger natural world with wolves, bats and spirits all co-existing is really brought to life.  You sense so many more tales lurking in the woods.

I also liked how the story tackles prejudice. Our Prince as Into the Woods would say is charming but certainly not sincere. There is a subtle tinge of class (and potentially racism) as to how those in the Lord’s Castle and the Village view the Girl who initially appears a woman from a community outside their own. No one makes her welcome and her inevitable fall from favour brings out the worse in people. At the same time The Girl is no a pure lost princess she makes decisions that will have potentially deadly implications for others. Faerie morality is not quite the same as human morality.

There are two other features I think make this a rewarding experience. Harris’ writing is beautiful and throughout you’ll find motifs of colour and nature. This makes the story extremely vivid and as the story progresses over the year so the changes in seasons also impact the tone as scenes move towards a darker conclusion. To aid this there are stunning illustrations by Bonnie Helen Hawkins throughout the novel capturing key scenes and emotions. This hardback edition is a work of art.

I appreciate fairy tales are not for everyone, but this was sumptuous reading experience that gives you something to think about long after closing the covers. Very much at this time of year it’s a story I can curl up with and spend hours reading from start to end over a day (which is exactly what I did). Harris continues to be one of the most interesting authors out there offering a variety of tales which is the hallmark of a true storyteller.