Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Undrowned Child, by Michelle Lovric

First published in hardback by Orion Children's Books, (Hachette) 2009.

The Undrowned Child is a book that makes me excited about books – about the art of story-telling, about imagination, about the cleverness and beauty of the English language, about great characters and about the ability of a story to transport you someplace else. It was the best kids book I read last year, and I only happened onto it because I was searching for kids/YA books that had mermaids in them, and this one came up. It is a shame it doesn’t seem to be well-known (as far as I can tell, in Australia). Maybe the release of the second in the series, The Mourning Emporium, will change that – I hope so, because The Undrowned Child has all the qualities that made Harry Potter so popular and successful – wit, humour, adventure, genuine chills, complex, appealing characters and story-telling that is completely immersive.
We have our lead, Teo, a girl who, although she is supposedly Napoletana, feels a strong attraction to Venice. There is Renzo, a charming Venetian boy who seems determined to upstage her at every turn. There is Maria, Teo’s snooty arch-nemesis. Then we throw in the grand, mysterious canals and architecture of Venice; beautiful mermaids (yes!) with hearts of gold but mouths on them like rough-as-guts sailors; a Kraken-like creature who is poisoning the water that surrounds the city; a variety of ghosts, some wishing to redeem themselves, some hopelessly given up, some looking to wreak a little more havoc; an array of fantastic and mythical creatures (including winged lions and vampire eels); scientists racing against time to save their beloved Venice; and a mystery which Teo, with Renzo’s help, must figure out – how to stop the malignant spirit of Bajamonte Tiepolo from coming to power again and bringing about a repeat of one of the most tragic days in Venetian history.
The Undrowned Child is a fantastic mix of real Venetian history, fascinating mythology/fairy-tale and a subtle coming-of-age story concerning Teo, our heroine. The sub-plot involving her feelings for the infuriating Renzo is touching and beautifully done, her attitude towards their whole relationship spot-on for the no-longer-child but not-quite-teen. Teo is flawed and she and Renzo make mistakes in their mission to save Venice, but this makes their endearing characters realistic and us empathetic to their many dilemmas.
I was enthralled by just about every character in The Undrowned Child, whether they play a big part or small. Lovric has a way with characterisation and their encounters with each other are a joy to read. I loved Lovric’s take on mermaids, and her hierarchy of ghosts. Her ‘evil’ characters are genuinely scary and she creates some awesome atmosphere with many of her set-pieces.
Where The Undrowned Child really sucked me in was that it is genuinely witty and sharp, thanks in part to Teo’s way of seeing the world. Her dialogue is some of the best I’ve read in a children’s book, and her characters come out with such funny and interesting ways of expressing themselves. I did notice that she seems to have a disregard for using the word said – all her characters exclaim, or talk despondently, or sob, or exclaim snootily, and so on. This goes against just about everything I’ve been taught about writing, but you know what? For this book, I think it works. It’s all part of the book’s quirky charm.
Love, love, loved The Undrowned Child. Maybe not suitable for younger readers – but this in intelligent, amusing, captivating story-telling, and I only hope Lovric gets the recognition she deserves.


  1. Oh yes! I have this on my bedside table. I have been BUSTING to read it but I am a 'completionist' and I must finish my other books first! jxx

  2. I know the feeling, but definately make sure you get to it! It is so wonderful and witty and gorgeous in every way X