‘On the third night after the day her father died, Liesl saw the ghost.’ Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice – until one night a ghost appears from the darkness. It is Po, who comes from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are lonely, but together they are less alone.
That same night, an alchemist’s apprentice, Will, bungles an important delivery. He accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with one containing something decidedly less remarkable. Will’s mistake has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.
The fabulous thing that Lauren Oliver has achieved with Liesl and Po is a sense that book could have been written in the 19th century. It has that classic fairy tale style that made The Brothers Grimm a household name. It has enough familiarity within the pages to pull any reader in, young or old; everyone will recognise the fairy tale foundations on which the novel builds on.
The novel opens with a Cinderella feel as we see Liesl trapped in the attic of her childhood home by her nasty step-mother after her father passed away. In fact much of the story borrows from the timeless motifs of childhood depression to build an emotional connection from the reader. Here is a young girl who many can relate to, she has lost her father and is now cast aside to live out her life with nothing more than a window and a sketch book.
This is why when Po, a mysterious ghost, enters her life the audience collectively pulls in a breath of relief. Po is the key to Liesl taking her life back. I enjoy a great fairy tale; I have read every Grimm tale and would rate the concept of Liesl and Po up there with the best. Po is a great character, friendly but still a little dark, with an interest in Liesl that we are unsure of. The ghost features throughout on Liesls journey and adds a slice of humour to proceedings, too.
Also joining her on her journey is a terrific cast of characters, but particularly the young boy, Will, an alchemist’s apprentice who made a simple mistake of delivering the alchemists most powerful magic to the wrong place. This led him to run away, leaving the only home he has ever known behind and meeting Liesl as she travels to bury her father’s ashes at the place of her birth. We first meet Will as he stands under Liesls window, besotted by her. Will is an interesting character, an orphan who can relate to Liesls life and also endears himself to us.
Of course what elevates a fairy tale is a little darkness from the theme and Liesl and Po comes with plenty. Many of its themes revolve around death, ghosts and “the other side”. The latter is a world in which our souls reside until we are truly at peace and can “move on”. It’s an interesting idea that is used for integral plot points.
Of course, Liesl and Po is branded as a kid’s book and as that stands it’s fair to say that children will love it. As an adult, I adored the story, though I did have a few issues with minor details. Things such as the alchemist who is seemingly a powerful mage (someone who can catch drops of sunlight, in fact) so why is there such concern over the magic that should have been delivered? Will’s affections for Liesl is also not explored enough, which left me feeling as if just an extra 20 pages could have added so much more.
What Lauren Oliver does very well, however, is imply things. She gives the reader stacks of information but through very subtle hints and her writing style. There are plenty of mysteries that are left hanging until the very end, but the reader already has a strong inkling from the subtle prose throughout. The same subtlety is lent to the descriptions of The Other Side which are both beautiful and harrowing in equal proportions.
It’s a cute story with fantastic artwork from Kei Acedera, but it’s not so overly saccharine thanks to the slightly macabre themes. There are themes of family, morals, ethics and dreams, it’s not a perfect book, but it’s a great one nonetheless.