Topsy Turvy Tales (an illustrated collection of gothic fairytales in verse) by Charlotte Boulay-Goldsmith is the first book to be released by Humpty Dumpty Publishing, and just by flicking through its pages it is plain to see that a great deal of time and energy has been poured into it. The typography and illustration throughout is lavish.
Although the publisher’s website touts it as a book “for all ages”, all visual signs point to these fairytale stories being of the slightly-twisted variety. Think the early Tim Burton and you’ll have the right idea. Each page is unique, with spidery writing spilling across the margins, stray specks of ink and gothicky little doodles to occupy otherwise blank sheets. It is marvellous: beautifully done and rife with detail.
All this was noticeable before I even started reading. The presentation of the book set an extremely high standard, and it is perhaps because of this that I was so surprised when I settled down and started taking in the text itself. To my great disappointment, the quality of the stories themselves didn’t quite match up to that of the rest of the book.
First and foremost the rhyme (all four stories are stories in verse) is often terribly forced and clunky. The nature of these poems suggests that there should be a flowing rhythm to them, that the way they sound should be as playful and polished as the way they look on the page. But frequently it seemed as though a word had been hastily stuck onto the end of a line in order to make it rhyme. Take this puzzling example:
‘I was wrong!
I had a body all along
Help me get my body back
We are such a good pack!”
In this instance “meld” definitely does rhyme with “yelled”, but what on earth does it mean? Similarly “back” and “pack” complement each other very well as far as the rhyme scheme goes, but it doesn’t quite make sense.
The pace and flow also suffer from frequent missteps. Trying to read the pieces out loud is a practice fraught with constant stops and starts, moments of difficulty as one tries to make the lines fit. Try reading out loud the following, from the same tale as above:
There was once a Girl,
well in her prime.
She had a lover, the Earl,
Whom she hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
Everything is fine until you arrive at the last line of the stanza, whereupon the rhythm promptly derails itself and one must rush through in order to try and make it fit.
I couldn’t help but feel that Topsy Turvy Tales might have been more enjoyable if it wasn’t so determined to try and make things rhyme. It’s little details like the clunky rhythm and the sheer awkwardness of the phrasing that lets down the four strong and entertaining stories.
All this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. It’s a stunning visual piece of work and delightfully ghoulish in places. But I found my enjoyment of it constantly challenged by an awkward line, an arrythmic stanza or an incomprehensible choice of word. It is unfortunate that the written element of this short collection doesn’t really hold up very well, but Topsy Turvy Tales is nonetheless a beautiful book.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England.