‘I remember many things,’ he whispered. ‘I remember I was all alone. I remember I did dig Heaven Eyes out one starry night from the mud of the Black Middens. Long long time ago. Long ago as she has been alive. I remember I am caretaker and always been the caretaker. But I do not remember many other things.’
He rubbed his eyes, focused on me, wrote again.
‘You dug her out?’ I said. ‘What do you mean, you dug her out?’
‘Grampa is the caretaker,’ her said. ‘Grampa dug Heaven from the Middens one starry night. This is long long time back and much in memory does fade away. Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath.’
Erin plans to run away with her best friend, January Carr. Away from Whitegates. Away from Maureen, who looks at the children in her care and sees broken, damaged people. Away from circle-time, and talking-about-it, and Maureen’s obsession with writing life-stories. Maureen seems to think she could have done a better job of being a Mum to Erin. Like Erin’s Mum was a failure for dying.
Erin, Mouse and January sail down the river on a homemade raft. They are met by Grampa, who can’t decide whether they are ghosts or devils, but wants to dig them back into the Black Middens before they can lead little Heaven Eyes astray. Heaven Eyes wants them to stay and be her brothers and sisters. Heaven Eyes sees beautiful things inside other people.
There are secrets buried in the Black Middens, and secrets buried deep inside Heaven’s Eyes.
I had never read Heaven Eyes. I don’t know why – in all the years of knowing Almond’s work was amazing, I hadn’t read Heaven Eyes. I finished rereading Skellig on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, I read Heaven Eyes. I read both books in a sitting. Both earned the highest accolade I ever award books – they are so perfect, I cried not for the plot, but for the sheer experience. For the words on the page. Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath. If you didn’t understand what I meant before, that quote should clarify.
Reading Almond has changed my approach to writing. So often when we ask what a story is about, we want to know about genre or setting, or some interesting action. Almond’s stories are about people. Erin Law became real to me through her life experience, and the thoughts and feelings she had as a result of her experience in the world so far. Grampa became real by the choices he made with regards to Heaven Eyes.
In April, I heard Almond speak alongside Morpurgo, at an event organised by Seven Stories. If you have not visited this haven of children’s literature, amend this. It is the best museum, and one of the most special places, I have ever visited. The talk taught me that Heaven Eyes, like parts of A Song for Ella Grey, is set in a fictional version of* the area Seven Stories is situated in. Being able to visualise the place enriched my reading experience. Few books are set in such specific locations. This is a huge shame. Local history and geography bring a setting to life.
Heaven Eyes and Grampa speak in ‘broken’ English, yet their language is beautiful. Whether coincidentally or otherwise, this mirrors Erin’s conflict. Maureen treats Erin as something ‘broken’, yet Erin feels her life is as perfect and wonderful as anyone else’s. Grampa’s English is ‘broken’, yet it is Grampa who speaks those beautiful words: Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath.
Those words. They are up there with the scene in Tom’s Midnight Garden where Peter Long cries ‘that’s not Hatty: that’s a grown-up Woman’, a second before the tower warden cries ‘Time’. Among the finest words in British children’s literature, they encapsulate the novel.
- Almond made this distinction – when he uses real-life places, he has freedom to add fictional elements.