I am in a couple of Enid Blyton Facebook groups with Suzy Howlett and had seen her mention her ‘unofficial’ novel a few times.
Now I’m always very wary about Enid Blyton continuation books – and I think I have good reason. So far Pamela Cox’s Malory Towers, Anne Digby’s Naughtiest Girl, Bruno Vincent’s Famous Five and Pamela Butchart’s Secret Seven have all been a big disappointment.
But, having read the synopsis of this book, and Suzy’s comments on it, I decided that I could give this one a go. I actually downloaded a free sample (the first few chapters) several months ago and was pleasantly surprised by those, but I still procrastinated over buying and reading the whole thing!
Returning to Kirrin
I’ll begin with saying that I actually quite enjoyed this book, despite a few things which I will touch on later.
I think there are a couple of key differences between this and the other continuations that I’ve highlighted above. Firstly, as the title suggests, this is set later in the Kirrins’ lives. They are all adults now, in or approaching their forties. That means that although we are with familiar characters and locations it is expected that many changes will have occurred in the intervening years. Although their backstories are not explored in great detail (I suspect that could take up several novels) we get enough insight to begin to understand why the Kirrins are the way they are as 30 or 40 somethings. That removes the vast majority of potential complaints about ‘she wouldn’t say that’ or ‘he wouldn’t do that’ because, as authors of a new story Neil and Suzy have taken our beloved Five, or should I say four, rather, through their late teens, twenties and thirties and developed them into somewhat different people to the children we once knew.
The 1979 setting allows for fresh language (though nods to the original language are made), fresh attitudes, plots and so on. Also relevant is that as Neil and Suzy were young adults in 1979 they have written about a time they know, giving a more accurate representation than some of the other continuations written decades before the authors were born and then updated to reflect modern sensibilities.
Secondly, this book was written by true fans with real affection for the series. Suzy herself has said
We wanted to keep it affectionate yet also amusing to those who really know the characters. We couldn’t make the characters perfect – because nobody is – but they are still very good souls at heart, even if one or two lost the way for a while.
So it’s not at all in the same vein as the Bruno Vincent books which exist simply to poke fun at every Famous Five trope, or anything related to the topic of the book (parenting, diets, Brexit etc).
So what is is about?
The blurb reads:
A cracking adventure for grown-ups! It is 1979, and Mrs Thatcher has just become Prime Minister. Punk and Ford Capris are everywhere. Julian Kirrin, now a forty-something entrepreneur, has big ideas for Kirrin Island. But he has to convince Julian, Dick, Anne and George – not an easy job! The Kirrin cousins have grown up and grown apart. Anne has a perfect marriage and twins who are a little unusual. Dick is still seeking success and the love of a good woman. George is as fierce and independent as ever, despite her teenage son. Her dog, Gary, is not at all like Timmy! Of course, there will be temper tantrums, awkward children and suspicious activities at sea, but serious danger and old political secrets threaten the cousins. Is there always a way to escape? Can you ever dip your toe into the same rock pool twice?
I think that summarises the book better than I could – and certainly more succinctly. Julian does manage to get his siblings, cousin and extended family over to Kirrin but nothing from then on goes smoothly. Anne tries her best to recreate their childhood joys in picnics but it’s not entirely appreciated (other than by Dick’s appetite). Dick tries to further his stalled policing career by investigating some strange lights in Kirrin Bay but it rather backfires on him. George is just downright furious that her father has passed ownership of the island to Julian and not her (and too right!) and so won’t go along with anything he says. Julian is rather over extended and relying heavily on this venture so all these complications do nothing for his blood pressure.
“Well, I’ve lots of things you will all remember.” Anne opened the lid. “So, sandwiches, of course, ham and tomato, egg and lettuce, and smoked salmon, as we didn’t have any sardines or, er, tongue. Hard-boiled eggs too, with salt to sprinkle on, plums, fruitcake, and buns. And we’ve got ginger beer to drink, just like we used to.”
– Anne’s updated Kirrin Island picnic
Familiar faces and new ones
Of course as above, the human members of the Five are back, if a little different as grown-ups. None with perhaps the exception of Dick are particularly likeable at the beginning, but as I said earlier we are given reasons for the changes to their personalities, and they do improve as the book goes on!
Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin appear, sadly divorced now (clearly his volatile temper finally was enough for her!). Although Quentin was often hard to like in the books he did have his moments where you could see why Fanny loved him – he, like the four, has not aged so well. Fanny also has her demons now which was quite sad to see.
Also along for the ride are Joan (more of a loud-mouthed lush than I recall), the Coastguard (not holding the same fond memories of the Five as they do of him), Alf/James (again, not so fond), and an old friend of the Five’s who Dick is particularly pleased to see.
And chocolate brownies now. Betty Crocker Mix, it’s called. You get a little cardboard baking tray thing to put the mixture in, so there’s no dirty washing up. American, you know, but your mother never minded.
– Joan’s shocking secret about some of her baking
There are several new characters too. Radclyffe, George’s son, is an interesting character. His relationship with his mother is complicated but well-written, and he embodies more of the Five’s youthful exploits (though in a less superior-morals sort of way) than the grown-up four do. Anne’s boy-girl twins who although are around the same age as Anne in Five on a Treasure Island are so mollycoddled they don’t get up to much. Julian’s son Hugh is an adult himself and has followed his father’s footsteps into the business. He come across as very competent and sensible.
Timmy, dear Timmy is no longer with us, which is tragic enough, but George has a new dog – Gary. Unfortunately for her as well as much as for us Gary is not a very pleasant dog! I almost feel sorry for him, as he could never live up to Timmy no matter how nice he was.
Earlier I said I enjoyed this despite a few things. I always give honest reviews so, here are the despites, though they are extremely petty.
This is not how I like to imagine the Five. Although we have only published up to their early university years Stef and I have mapped out and even written large chunks of the Five’s lives (I’ve even done a few paragraphs about Darrell in her 90s!) and so we have a very strong sense of who they are as adults. It’s not all saccharine and happiness – there are troubles times in almost every marriage for one reason or another as well as in their personal lives, but I think we manage to retain them as good people throughout, despite any mistakes they make. Though we do have George rather estranged from her cousins for a long time – mostly because we didn’t know what else to do with her!
However I’m aware this is a criticism on par with those who refuse to watch otherwise excellent adaptations of books because the visuals don’t perfectly match their imaginations. It’s not my vision of the Five, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
There were also one or two minor details that were either mistakes or were simply changed to suit the plot. One was that the secret passage to Kirrin Island begins in Quentin’s study, whereas in the original books the passages go from the study to Kirrin Farm, and another runs from Kirrin Quarry to the island – though it’s possible that there are other branches connecting them that weren’t discovered until later.
The second, and this is hard to mention without giving away a detail that I don’t want to spoil, is that a familiar character is given a nationality that isn’t in the books. Julian once queries if that character is from that country, but it’s never mentioned again, yet now they have an undeniable accent.
Neither of these affect the enjoyment of the book, they are just little things I noticed having read all the books dozens of times over.
The new Five made me feel quite sad throughout, as I was always searching for signs of the children I know so well. All the returning characters have their unpleasant moments which wasn’t always nice to read – but it does all come right in the end though. It actually left me wishing for a sequel so I could see them all fully enjoying their new leases of life – and if that’s not an endorsement coming from me then nothing is!
It also made me shed a few tears (the good kind) particularly near the end so I think the ‘affectionate’ and ‘touching’ descriptions from the authors were apt.
If you want to try it out yourself I suspect Amazon are still offering the free sample (I can’t check as I’ve already bought it and it doesn’t offer samples unless you’re signed in). If not, significant chunks are available as a ‘look inside’ preview, or the paperback is £8.99 and the Kindle edition is only £3.61.