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magritApril 2016 Discussion – Junior Fiction – Magrit by Lee Battersby


About the book: Magrit lives in an abandoned cemetery with her friend and advisor, Master Puppet, whom she built from bones and bits of graveyard junk. She is as forgotten as the tiny graveyard world that surrounds her. One night as Magrit and Master Puppet sit atop of their crumbling chapel, a passing stork drops a baby into the graveyard. Defying Master Puppet’s demands that the baby be disposed of, and taking no heed of his dire warnings, Magrit decides to raise the baby herself. She gives him a name: Bugrat. Magrit loves Bugrat like a brother, friend and son all rolled into one. But Master Puppet and the newly discovered skeleton girl know all too well what will happen when Bugrat grows up – that the truth about them all will be revealed. Something Magrit refuses to face.

About the author: Lee Battersby is the author of several adult novels and over 70 short stories, published in Australia, the US and Europe. His work has been praised for its consistent attention to voice and narrative muscle, and has resulted in a number of awards, including the Aurealis, Australia Shadows and Australia SF “Ditmar” gongs. Lee lives in Western Australia, with his wife, writer Lyn Battersby and an increasingly weird mob of kids. He’s been a stand-up comic, tennis coach, cartoonist, poet, and tax officer in previous times, and he currently works as Arts Officer for a local council, where he gets to play with artists all day.

The discussion: SPOILERS AHEAD

This is one highly unusual book and most of the bookclub members were bemused and confused about its intended audience. Some felt that they could not think of anyone to whom they could recommend in their primary school whereas some thought they might have that unusual or quirky reader who would enjoy this. It was noted that on a second reading the text offered a little more understanding and appreciation.

We looked at the cover to identify the shapes that are used to make up the cover illustrations. It was interesting to note that some of us had not connected any of the shapes and barely looked at the cover, whereas others noticed the visual clues immediately – we wondered what that said about our own visual literacies. Although it has a very pretty purple cover and childlike illustrations it was felt that older children, perhaps year 7 would appreciate this more than a younger audience.

We then talked about Magrit (or Margaret as we believed she once was named).  It was clear that Magrit had grown up in poverty, if not neglect,

Magrit had been born in one of the apartments overlooking the cemetery, although she could recall nothing beyond the cold concrete floor and the sharp edged plastic furniture, and the constant smell of cigarette smoke and chip fat.

(Battersby, 2016, p16). We wondered if when Margrit had wandered off as a child, was she even missed? How does a child live alone in a cemetery without being discovered? Magrit has only memories of the cemetery so she has some unusual ideas about what the rest of the world is like. The description of the skeleton by Magrit reveals that the child was neglected and malnourished in life. Magrit though is a lively and curious child who has many of her questions answered by the enigmatic and quite scary Master Puppet.

We spent some time discussing the relationship between Magrit and Master Puppet. Was he real or was he only in her imagination – we had differing thoughts.  Members who enjoy reading magical realism or fantasy had less difficulty in believing in his existence than those who prefer contemporary stories. Their relationship is quite fractious and contrary although,

Master Puppet did love her. His love was real, but it was a cold, hard skeletal love.

(Batterby, 2016,p40-41 ). Some were shocked at the tone and language that Master Puppet uses (especially when he tells the baby to “shut-up” and suggests that they “kill it”) and it was thought that some little children would find this confronting. It was also felt that the destruction of Master Puppet by Magrit, and then her regret and rebuilding of him, would also upset some children. We had conflicting opinions about whether we thought Master Puppet is jealous of Bugrat and the changes he will bring to their existence in the cemetery or just protective of Magrit and the inevitable outcome.

The arrival of Bugrat also caused some confusion and consternation.  How did Magrit care for this baby? Obviously, there are clues to Magrit’s identity that emerge as Bugrat grows and Magrit stays the same. Master Puppet is well aware of the changes that will happen if Bugrat knocks on the window to the apartment.  Some of us wanted to know how Bugrat would know the word “no” as he did not speak and was not around real characters, but those who had no problem with the notion of ghosts also did not question this.

We talked about whether or not the revelation of Magrit’s true identity was a surprise. Many of us had guessed or had suspicions as there had been many instances of foreshadowing; Magrit’s never aging form, the skeleton in the corner, the area that she would never go to, the mentioning of the cut from the tin that never healed and the little voice that appears to her. Master Puppet believes that Magrit secretly wishes to grow up and escape the cemetery as she is trapped,

You decided to grow up,” he said. “This is growing up. I’m so sorry, Magrit. Growing up has consequences.

(Battersby, 2016, p134). At the beginning of the novel Magrit seems quite content so it was felt that living with Bugrat, seeing him grow and live, created Magrit’s dissatisfaction.

There are some lovely aspects to this book showing great examples of figurative language and also of persuasive and manipulative language. We also were attracted to the differences in font and illustrations. Generally, it was felt that a horror book for this age group is a difficult thing to pull off – we were not in agreement about whether or not the author was successful. It had parallels of course to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The themes of loneliness, abandonment and acceptance of death are quite mature. The overall sentiment of this novel was, therefore, one of sadness; sadness for the abandoned child who died a lonely death in a cemetery and is trapped as a ghost. For some of our members this was a beautifully sad and evocative novel; for others, it was a little weird.