I confess that I’ve always harboured a little inverse snobbery about the work of the much lauded Michael Morpurgo. It dates back to an event by Mr Gum author Andy Stanton, who spent a considerable part of his act falling over and saying, ‘You don’t get this with Michael Morpurgo!’ What you did get, as far as I could see, were an awful lot of animals teaching us about how to be better humans. Fine sentiments of course, but surely I’m well beyond that sort of help?
Kensuke’s Kingdom relegates animals to supporting roles and replaces them with some fine boats. Learning through a relationship with an object is much more my speed. Or so I thought, until I got to know the very human Kensuke, one of the most beguiling adult characters I have encountered in a children’s book.
This is a classic shipwreck story, told by an adult looking back at the time he spent washed up on an island in the Pacific Ocean. One minute Michael’s messing around on a dinghy in the local reservoir, the next he’s sailing the world in a yacht called Peggy Sue after his parents decide to give long term unemployment the finger and throw caution to the wind.
After Michael is swept off deck he spends a year in the company Kensuke, a Japanese castaway in his mid-70s who is so much more than a ‘Man Friday’ figure. There are countless wonderful moments between the pair, particularly in the second half when Kensuke and Michael bond over painting like Hokusai, fishing on Kensuke’s hand build rig and midwifing thousands of hatching turtles from the beach to the ocean.
The most impressive writing comes in the chapter Everyone Dead in Nagasaki, which should also win a prize for best chapter title. Somehow Morpurgo manages to fit Kensuke’s entire life story into just a couple of pages, gives a powerful sense of the fallout of the nuclear attack and sets an unsolvable personal dilemma that provides extra weight in the final act of the story.
He crams it all in, yet there is also a huge amount space in this sequence. Morpurgo is a writer of the classic tradition of Children’s Books. There is no irony, no hook, no high concepts here, just solid storytelling with a hand-built quality and a faint smell of old leather (or perhaps teak oil).
Morpurgo is aided in his task by Michael Foreman’s light, Hokusai referencing illustrations. I normally prefer his bold early work, but here the fragile lines and luminous watercolours bring a dream like quality that suit a story told from the point of view of a protagonist who is now a grown up and perhaps seeing events through the shimmer of failing memory and just a little regret.
The colour edition of Kensuke’s Kingdom is published by Egmont