Many Waters (by Madeleine L'Engle)

In my gradual quest to read through Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction for teenagers, some of which I have never read before, I have just finished the fourth in the ‘Time Quintet’.

‘Many Waters’ is sometimes recommended to be read as the third rather the fourth book in the series which begins with the classic ‘Wrinkle in Time’, but I don’t see what difference it makes, as it stands alone. Whereas the first three mostly involve Meg Murry and her youngest brother Charles Wallace, this one is almost entirely about their twin brothers Sandy and Dennys, who play much smaller roles in the other books.

The twins are around sixteen in this book, and unlike their siblings are not science geeks. They’re still fairly academic, one planning to be a doctor and the other a lawyer. But in their brilliant and somewhat quirky family, they are considered the ordinary, practical ones who enjoy sports and gardening rather than obscure scientific theories.

The story starts when the twins, hunting in their parents’ lab for some cocoa powder, feeling fed up with the wintry weather outside, type a few things into their father’s computer which leads to their suddenly being transported to a different - and very hot - climate. They have no idea where (or when) they are, although it quickly becomes obvious to the reader as they meet people whose names are familiar from a Bible history context.

The novel is primarily historical fiction with some low-key fantasy which is almost indistinguishable from supernatural elements. Seraphim and nephilim mix with humans, and have the ability to change into different creatures at will (I wonder if JK Rowling’s animagi were inspired by them - indeed, it occurs to me as I write to wonder if her Weasley twins were in some measure inspired by Sandy and Dennys). Unicorns appear when summoned, by those who believe in them, and mammoths, smaller than their name might imply, function as family pets. El - the name for God in the book - speaks to some people directly, and there are also those who can hear messages from the stars.

There’s not a great deal known about this era of pre-history, but L’Engle has created a very believable world, based in an oasis, with people living in tents. Family feuds, jealousies, even a form of class consciousness are all common, but there are gentle, caring people too. Sandy and Dennys, at first considered alien giants, are gradually drawn into the community with growing awareness of what story they are unexpectedly part of, and what is to come.

Since this is the first (and, I believe, only) book to involve the twins as major characters, it could easily be read as a standalone novel rather than as part of the series. The science parts are minimal, and as a non-scientist myself, I felt that I could almost begin to comprehend the idea (if not the actuality) of quantum particle physics as demonstrated by the unicorns.

I thought the ending rather abrupt, and would have liked more about the twins’ family at the end, but it’s really my only minor complaint about what was otherwise an excellent book. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The blend of history, fantasy and faith works extremely well, in my opinion, and could be read by anyone, whatever their belief (or lack thereof). In the introduction to my paperback edition Madeleine L’Engle says that she often wrote to help her explore difficult questions that occurred to her about time and space; she doesn’t make the mistake of trying to answer questions, instead she encourages readers to think outside the box.

It’s not a book for younger children, but could be read by anyone from the age of about ten and upwards who enjoys intelligent historical fiction and doesn’t mind a bit of fantasy.

Highly recommended.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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