Every now and then I get to fall into a book so completely that I can’t help feel delighted that the gods have somehow conspired to allow me to read and write about books for a living.
From the opening paragraphs of Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone, I was hooked.
Toby was just one and a half millimetres tall, not exactly big for a boy of his age. Only his toes were sticking out of the hole in the bark where he was hiding.
Looking up through the enormous russet-coloured leaves to the starry sky above, Toby felt there had never been a night as dark and shiny as this one. When there’s no moon, the stars dance more brightly. Even if there were a sky in Heaven, he told himself, it couldn’t possibly be as deep or as magical as this.
Well, there is only one place to go after an opening like that and that is head on into the story with the diminutive Toby whose whole universe is described by the giant oak tree in which he, and his crisis riven people, live.
Part allegory, part adventure, I am certainly not alone in falling for the charms of Toby. Translated from the French by Sarah Adams, and illustrated by the reknown François Place, Toby Alone has already been translated into 22 languages. The story is captivating, the characters engrossing and the whole book has been printed using vegetable inks and printed on recycled paper which is entirely appropriate given its theme.
Toby Lolness is on the run. His father has made a ground-breaking discovery, tapping into the very heart of the Tree’s energy, but he knows that to exploit it would be to put their civilization in serious danger. For refusing to reveal his secret, the family has been exiled, imprisoned and sentenced to death. It is up to Toby to save them.
The story of Toby Alone is a story for our times. A ruthless obsessed dictator manages to subvert an essentially good society, exploiting people’s fears, xenophobia and greed. This is climate change and globalisation shrunk to the scale of a single, ancient tree. It put me in mind of both the dystopian Stalinist vision of George Orwell’s Animal Farm as well as the moral and allegorical weight of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince. In terms of the charm of its presentation, its pure Gallic flair banishes all before it.
Of course, for a child reading the book (it is aimed at nine to 12 year olds who are not afraid of a thick volume), you can forget the didactics. The focus is on the adventure, the suspense, the pluck of Toby and Elisha and the dastardly deeds of Joe Mitch whose McMansions and housing estates are slowly poisoning The Tree.
The UK’s Guardian Newspaper gave a huge wrap to Toby Alone. The book is available now in hardback. Come August, it will be released in paperback at which time its sequel, Toby and the Secrets of the Tree will be out in hardback.
Don’t let the kids have all the fun. Toby is a delight from start to finish.