A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M Harris

It isn’t often these days that not only do I feel compelled to immediately review the book I’ve just read, but the need to spew words out right now is so powerful that I can’t ignore it. Joanne Harris’s latest novella A Pocketful of Crows is the first book I’ve read in a single sitting for a long while. Often I’ve read them in two, or perhaps three sittings - but one is very rare. (The last one I read in one sitting was Brian and Wendy Froud’s Trolls, but that’s more a story book than a novel, and it’s short - but it socked me in the gut for similar reasons. This will make sense as you read on, especially if you know the Frouds’ work.) So the fact I read it in one sitting should tell you something before we even start.

Ever since Joanne told me that this (her Book She Was Not Writing) was based on the story of The Brown Girl, I’ve been dying to read it, even more than I usually anticipate her books. For those who don’t know (and I suspect, sadly, more won’t than will), The Brown Girl is one of the 305 listed Child Ballads (in fact, it’s number 295), and is a song on Steeleye Span’s 1976 album Rocket Cottage. (A story, told by Maddy Prior during an interview, that has stuck with me is that the track you can hear on the album was recorded while she was sitting in a broom cupboard, and when she sang it, she was pissed. It’s worth seeking out for that reason alone, if you ask me.) One of many things Joanne and I have in common is a love of Steeleye Span and this means being exposed to a lot of Child Ballads. So I know the song. I know Joanne’s writing. What’s more, I know Joanne and what she’s capable of (the first story in her collection A Cat, A Hat and a Piece of String, called River Song, made me cry like an infant, it was so beautifully written). But nonetheless, I still did not know quite what to expect from this one.

I got my copy of the book at GollanczFest at Foyles in Charing Cross Road. As Joanne signed it for me, she told me to let her know what I thought of it once I’d read it, as she’d needed to play around with the story a little bit as there’s not enough song to make a book. I already trusted Joanne to do justice to the song. After all, she loves it as much as I do. So I was expecting… something. Something great. But what I got was so much more, and the feelings I came away with can only really be understood if a) you love The Brown Girl, too and b) you’re a tree-hugging Earth Mother, i.e. if you’re me (or at least very like me). But I’m going to do my best without putting any spoilers in.

The Brown Girl - the song - is about a black woman who falls in love with a white man, who then breaks her heart by writing to tell her he can’t marry her because she’s “so brown” and that he’s going to marry “a fairer maiden than ever [she’ll] be.” This has been (mis)interpreted as the man marrying a more beautiful woman - another meaning of “fairer” - but the true meaning is explicit in the song and I’m not sure how it could have been missed. Anyway - I promised no spoilers, but as you can easily go out and find the song and listen to it, that’s not really giving anything away. Because A Pocketful of Crows, as I said, is much, much more than a story of revenge, and I’ve come away feeling refreshed and as though I have to go out barefoot, on the coldest night of the year, and worship at the feet of the moon, my hair braided with flowers and a cup of wine in my hands. And yes, I’m aware of how that sounds, but if you know me well (and fewer people than you’d think actually do), then you’ll know it makes sense.

Joanne has surpassed herself. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realise that the world of A Pocketful of Crows is not far removed from the world of the Frouds’ Trolls, and not far, also, from Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books (which I also adored, for many of the same reasons). The more books like this I read, the more I feel connected, the more I feel I’m (crucially) not alone in feeling the way I do about the Otherworld. It exists, in people’s psyches and hearts and minds and souls. In olden times, it wasn’t questioned, in fact it was worshipped, feared and revered. Nowadays, well… this is why I sometimes feel so alone, and so disconnected from the noise and soullessness of the modern world. It does its best to make you feel there’s nothing there. That there’s only what you can see.

I disagree. We can all connect to the Otherworld, if we want to. And we will only want to if we can feel its presence. Its presence manifests itself to us every single day, but most people choose to ignore it, or simply don’t recognise it. It manifests in Story. It manifests in symbolism and ritual. It shows itself clearly when you think can can hear your long-passed grandmother laughing at something you know she’d find funny.

A Pocketful of Crows, for me, isn’t just a story. It’s much more than that. Because the tale Joanne has told on these pages is the story of Life, the story of the Otherworld, and the story that’s within all of us… if only we care to listen to its song.