The Young Unicorns (by Madeleine L'Engle)

In my mixture of reading and re-reading authors whose books I’ve enjoyed, I’m working my way through the young adult fiction by Madeleine L’Engle, most of which is new to me. We collected several of her books when my sons were teenagers, and I’ve bought others at charity shops, but until recently had not read most of them. As far as I gather, there are three main series, with some overlapping characters. I’m not sure I’m reading in the best order, but since I intersperse with books by other authors, it’s not really a problem.

‘The Young Unicorns’ is third in the Austin series about a family with four children. John, the oldest, is away at university in this book so he doesn’t appear. Vicky is the oldest girl, in her teens, and her sister Suzy is about eleven. They have a younger brother, Rob. They live in a flat in New York, and have temporarily adopted Emily, who lives in the flat below, and whose father is travelling. Emily is a gifted pianist… to say more would be a spoiler.

The story is about gangs, and the potential problems that can accompany medical advances. It’s also about freedom, and asks some quite deep questions about what is meant by the word - whether anyone can truly be free. It also shows how apparent altruism can be a sign of a controlling personality… perhaps even mania. There’s a low-key religious element; much of the action takes place in or under a cathedral, and some of the clergy are important characters, as well as the visiting Canon Tallis. But there’s no preaching, or anything too overtly Christian.

It doesn’t have the fantasy/time travel elements that are present in ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and its sequels. There are no unicorns at all, other than in a metaphorical/literary sense. But there’s a distinct element of medical science fiction. Having finished it, I’d class this book as a thriller, which isn’t my preferred genre. Yet, because it’s intended for older children/teens rather than adults, I found the tension gripping but not unpleasant. Nor is there any goriness, or serious violence.

Although, in retrospect, I realise that much of the book is a tad caricatured, I was so caught up in the story that it felt real. It did not make good bedtime reading, so I picked it up in the daytime instead, and could hardly put it down after the first few chapters.

L’Engle had quite a gift of characterisation, and I had no problem at all remembering who was whom despite a fairly large cast. The secretive Dave, who also spends a lot of time with the Austins and Emily, is a complex and fascinating character. Mr Theo, Emily’s music teacher, is elderly and insightful. Canon Tallis, who I met in one of the author’s books in a different series, is altogether delightful.

Some of the concepts are complicated, and some of the situations could be frightening to a younger child, so I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under the age of about ten or eleven. Ideal for a fluent and keen reader who wants something with depth. I liked this book more than I expected to, once I had realised what genre it was in, and it’s left me with much to think about.

Recommended to anyone who wants a fairly quick read and doesn’t mind a bit of suspense.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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