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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Reincarnation of Peter Pan
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Kensington Gardens

By Rodrigo Fresan, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Faber and Faber, 384 pp, 24.95 dollars

The 100th anniversary of the first performance of Peter Pan has brought renewed life to James Barrie's personification of youthful spirit. There has been a new film version of the play and even a movie made about how the diminutive Scotsman was inspired to write his most famous work. None view the story through a darker glass than Kensington Gardens.

Argentine expatriate novelist Rodrigo Fresan weaves an inventive double helix of literary DNA, intertwining a fictionalized biography of Barrie, the most successful dramatist and author of the Victorian era, with a first-person account of the life of Peter Hook, a fictional children's novelist who has stepped over the edge of reason and into a Neverland of his own creation.

A sort of ying-yang duality lies at the core of the novel, with each element of Barrie's life story having its counterpart, in some cases a funhouse mirror reflection, in Hook's life.

The son of an iconic swinging '60s rock star couple, Hook grows up on a posh estate called, a bit too obviously, Neverland. His parents, the children of wealthy aristocrats, are the nucleus of a rock band called the Beaten Victorians--a sort of anti-Beatles who lament the loss of traditional British values while still embracing the psychedelic scene.

Like Barrie, Hook loses a much loved brother and is neglected and unloved by his parents. While Barrie's mother shut herself up in her room after the death of Barrie's elder brother, Hook's grief-maddened mother dies in Peter Hook's arms singing the chorus of her hit single "You're Not Mine" to her young son after biting off his earlobe.

Unlike Barrie, who stayed childlike in many ways throughout his life, Hook becomes a hardened, cynical adult almost overnight after taking LSD in Kensington Park as a young child.

Hook grows up to become the J.K. Rowling of his world, penning a long-running series of best-selling children's novels starring Jim Yang and his time-traveling bicycle. While Peter Pan is the boy who refuses to grow up, Yang's time-traveling leaves him unable to do so. Fresan makes clear that in as much as Barrie's Peter Pan was inspired by and modeled on the Llewelyn-Davies brothers, Yang is very much Hook's literary alter ego.

Hook tells the story of his life, intermingled with Barrie's, to Keiko Kai, a Japanese child actor cast to play the part of Yang in the first movie based on Hook's work. Hook has kidnapped the young thespian and has sinister plans to wreck his own reputation and try to destroy the "virus" of children's literature forever:

"I was infected; and terminally ill, I consecrated myself to the virus--literature--whose mission, hardly secret at all, is to kill reality and annihilate childhood, supplanting and improving both as much as possible until they've become immortal stories that will never grow old."

Fresan, like Barrie and Hook, understands that children are not innocents in the sentimental, blameless way that adults generally portray and imagine them, but only unknowing or perhaps unconcerned with the consequences of their actions, whether noble or brutal. Pedaling back and forth in time like Yang, Hook, propelled by Fresan's often surrealistic descriptions and energetic, magic-realism tinged storytelling takes his young prisoner well beyond the "second star to the right and straight on 'til morning."

Kensington Gardens is a fascinating, dark and yet whimsical meditation on the nature of childhood, fantasy, neglect and imagination.

(Sep. 18, 2005)

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