Rating: 3 stars
I changed my library books today. One of the books I chose turned out to be children’s fiction mis-shelved in the adult fiction section.
Rooftoppers is a magical mix of The Silver Sword, The Summer Book and Tom’s Midnight Garden, shot through with the child-like wonder of Amélie.
The book is a fantastical adventure involving a teenage girl who has been raised by a man who found her floating in a cello case as a baby following the wreck of a ship travelling from France to England. The date is never mentioned, but modes of transport suggest the early years of the 20th century.
Charles, the man, brings up Sophie, the girl, in an eccentric but loving way, much to the consternation of the childcare agencies in London. The relationship between Charles and Sophie is beautiful. Sophie is allowed to be the person she is and Charles immerses her in literature, at one point telling her:
It’s the things you read at the age you are now which stick. Books crow-bar the world open for you.
The pair’s happiness together is, of course, threatened by the dull hand of authority. Sophie is convinced her mother survived the ship’s sinking, and a timely clue sends them on the run to Paris in search of Sophie’s mother.
Their adventures in Paris are exciting and nerve racking. Rundell’s descriptions of life among the Paris rooftops are breathtaking. The book is also witty in its appreciation of the quirks of English life. The core theme is never ignoring a possibility, which plays out as the characters seizing life by the scruff of its neck and living it, no matter what convention might think. The book considers what belonging means, what love is, and who makes a good family. There is excitement and adventure along the way, and frustration with authority.
Charles is an adult who resists the expectation that adults should not “believe anything unless it is boring or ugly”. In many ways this makes him an honorary child in a world full of untrustworthy adults. While Charles tries to find Sophie’s mother by conventional means, Sophie takes matters into her own hands and discovers a nocturnal world of roof dwelling children high above the streets of Paris. The children are resourceful and self-sufficient, and I found Sophie and Matteo convincing protagonists. I liked Sophie’s strength of character and Matteo’s grudging respect for her.
As an adult, I enjoyed the book. I was so gripped that I read it in a couple of hours. It fizzled out slightly towards the end, but that might be down to me wanting something more substantial than children’s fiction can give. If I’d read it back when I was the age of the children in the story, I would have loved it.
On a side note, early on in the book, I was irritated by the use of slither where I would have used sliver. I think of slither as something a snake does, not as a noun describing a thin slice of something. This sent me off on a quest to see whether slither is accepted as an alternative to sliver, because it doesn’t do to presume that English is a static language. I found this analysis, which suggests the two have been interchangeable for over 100 years. Interesting.