Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2,589: A Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

Jostein Gaarder is best known for his novel, Sophie’s World but he is also the author of a number of other books, including the Solitaire Mystery, Through a Glass Darkly and the subject of today’s post, A Christmas Mystery.

A Christmas Mystery tells the story of two Norwegian children, Joachim and Elisabet.  Joachim’s story begins on November 30 when he goes to his local bookstore with his father to purchase an Advent calendar.  Uninspired by the shop’s offerings, he spots an old and faded calendar which has been left there by John, an enigmatic man who sells flowers in the market.  Joachim insists on buying the old Advent calendar and takes it home.  The next day he opens the first door.  A piece of paper falls out.  There is writing on the paper.  He begins to read and discovers that the writing is the first part of a story about………….

…….another Norwegian child, Elisabet.  Her story begins at Christmas time almost 50 years before Joachim buys his Advent calendar.  Elisabet is out shopping for Christmas presents with her mother when she sees a stuffed lamb come to life and run out of the shop.  Elisabet runs after it, becomes separated from her mother and follows the lamb out of the town.

Each day, Joachim opens another door in the calendar and another piece of paper falls out, gradually revealing more about what happened to Elisabet.  As time goes by, Joachim becomes more and more involved in Elisabet’s story and he tries to track down John, the flower seller who, it becomes clear, has made the magical Advent calendar and written Elisabet’s story.  It also becomes apparent that Elisabet is not a  figment of John’s imagination but a real girl, who went missing nearly 50 years earlier.

Elisabet’s story takes us thousands of miles across Europe and the Middle East and 2,000 years back in history to a rendez-vous with a very special child on a very special night in Bethlehem in an inventive twist on the Christmas story and, ultimately to a conclusion that reminds us of the joy and meaning of Christmas.

Like many of his other works, including Sophie’s World, A Christmas Mystery is written from the viewpoint of a child, in this case Joachim.  It is also a piece of metafiction, telling to story of Joachim reading the story of Elisabet.  This, again, is a favourite technique of Gaarder.

Although the text is studded with small pieces of wisdom and insight and although the storyline is quite convoluted, A Christmas Mystery is not as sophisticated or as adult a work as Sophie’s World or the Solitaire Mystery (the only other Gaarder books I have read).  The resolution of Elisabet’s journey was a touch unfulfilling and unconvincing for me and, as a father, I have a bit of an issue with the feel-good aspect of the book’s denouement (although I am prepared to accept that this may be over-sensitivity on my part) which I can’t discuss here for fear of spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t read it.

On the positive side, it is an enjoyable read.  It did give me a warm feeling inside and a real Christmas feeling of peace and contentment.  It is gentle and heartwarming and even has some interesting factual nuggets.  The story is told in 24 chapters, corresponding to the Advent calendar so you could actually read a chapter a day with your child or children as a little Christmas ritual – I think I may well do this with (or, possibly, to!) mini-Falaise in a couple of years.  The structure of the book drew me in and kept me wanting to find out what happened next.

A Christmas Mystery is a real Christmas book and is highly recommended for both adults and children.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds.  I, on the other hand, will be giving to you on my fourth blogging day of Christmas a truly cozy Christmas crime caper – A Highland Christmas by MC Beaton, featuring PC Hamish Macbeth and the glorious Highlands of Scotland.


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