Welcome to my little window on this wonderful early advent calendar. It’s almost Halloween too, which is quite fitting as this isn’t your usual squeaky clean fairy tale. Though it is full of magic…
The Unwrapping of Theodora Quirke is best described as a festive, funny, magical, weird, NSFW tale, stuffed as full as a turkey with the kind of dark whimsy that we have come to expect from Ms. Smailes. Thanks must go to the author and the Red Door team for sending me an advance copy and inviting me to be a part of the blog tour for this wonderful book.
So let us begin: Our heroine, Theodora Quirke has had a difficult life so far and the poor kid is only 19. In and out of care as a child, she is recently bereaved and has lost so much more than her partner. She’s going through the motions of recovery, but doesn’t see how she’s ever going to move on – nor is she sure that she actually wants to. Grown-Ups tell her that because she’s young, she’ll just ‘get over it’, or that she has no idea what real loss is, seemingly ignoring the fact that young love is so passionate, and all-consuming, not to mention that the entire life she had planned out for herself has just gone, rather unceremoniously, down the toilet.
So it’s no surprise that when we first encounter Theo, she’s delivering a fairly standard potty mouthed tirade to a 2000 year old man dressed in a Santa Suit that she finds on the steps of her accomodation brandishing a “parasol” (she’s fairly sure it’s an umbrella? What actually is the difference?) Well, ok perhaps there are elements of that situation that would present a teeny little bit of a surprise, but you get my point.
So turns out it’s not Santa, it’s St Nick (yes there is a difference and please don’t let him hear you ask that question or there’ll be ructions). St Nick is smarting very badly from the over commercialisation of his image into the capitalist icon of Santa Claus and boy, does he show it. He’s really let himself go. Theo’s torn between feeling some magic around her when he tells his story and thinking he’s just a weirdo guy from the YMCA that’s found himself at a loose end on a wet evening and is tormenting a random, sad-eyed girl for a bit of malevolent fun.
St Nick informs Theo that he has been sent to ‘rescue’ her. He has instructions – although they’re a little disturbing and he thinks they’ve got some how scrambled along the way. St Nick turns out to be in the business of delivering magic and showing people things that they need to see – like what really happened on those occasions in the past that you *think* you know about. Turns out he even took a certain author named Mr Dickens on one of these tours back in the day, and is still peeved that he didn’t even get so much as a credit in the book (Yes, you know which one I’m talking about).
First off, Theo doesn’t need rescuing and she’s pretty fed up of people suggesting it. Secondly, this is just too weird. Once he’s shown her what she needs to see, the ever erratic Nick then announces that he’s had some cryptic messages that come from the people who run Christmas – the Higher Powers – and they want her to be recruited as the first ever female Christmas Angel. It’s all a bit much, to be honest, and that’s before she finds out that she would have to agree to become immortal, thus never reuniting in the heavenly realm with the aptly named Gabriel – her lost love.
Enter stage left a literal evil twin. I won’t use his real name because I don’t want to give too much away, but through the power of Social Media he gets a hold of some of the people who have received a Christmas Miracle from St Nick in the past and does the very best he can to turn this situation on its head. His master plan is to discredit our guy so that he can take over Christmas World himself – and with Thanos-like overtones, he believes he can quieten the unruly amongst our broken society with fear, including kidnapping the naughtiest children and keeping them in his lair for a year (yes, he has a lair, he’s a proper baddie).
So as you can see, there’s a lot going on. It’s a real sleigh ride. If you’re someone who believes in the magic of Christmas like me (I’m a Christmas Eve baby, or ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ as I’m known to my family) then you’ll devour this book without another word from me. If you’re a little less interested in magic and whimsy, what you need to know about this book is that it’s not a fairy tale, there are sprinkles of glitter throughout, but they come from dirty puddles, from food caked beards and orange speedos straining against an obese man’s belly (I’ve not gone mad, these things are all part of the tale).
Caroline’s writing reminds me of Quentin Tarantino’s directing style in some ways (bear with me). He puts opposites together that emphasise each of those things individually – he has the good, the bad, the violence, the passion and the wickedly, inappropriately funny, and it shouldn’t really work – but it just does. Well Caroline manages to do something similar with magic and whimsy – she keeps the charm and the magic and the fun but avoids the twee by a mile. She makes it darker, makes it dirty, makes it sweary, and makes the magic feel so bloody real because she doesn’t sugar coat it. There were some phrases that were so real to me that they made me stop in my tracks – thoughts about fear, about expectation and what we miss out on if we don’t have faith in ourselves. The terror of realising you’ve had a life half lived.
If the shit things can happen, why can’t the magic happen too?
As a final point, there are a few things I’ve come to know about the lovely Caroline Smailes, the first is that she absolutely adores Christmas, the second is that she absolutely adores Liverpool. She shows both of those things off in this book (you’ll spot a few references to locally loved spots and also the dragging of a certain ‘news’paper if you keep an eye out). When she first submitted this novel she was told that no-one wanted to read about a working class girl from Liverpool, but she kept going, and here we are. From someone born and bred in a working class scouse family- I feel represented by Theo Quirke. Now in true Christmas pantomime style, Caroline can now stick two firm, very sweary fingers up in the direction of these nay-sayers and shout ‘OH YES THEY DO’.
5/5 (if I could give it more, I would).
PS. We share a love of dinosaurs. This is important as you will find out.