After dinner he was looking out of the window while he dried the dishes, and he noticed a pair of squirrels in the backyard. There was nothing strange about them. The place was full of squirrels, and chipmunks, and occasionally deer, but these were a grey and a red, like in the game, and they didn't dart back and forth, they just stood on their hind legs, facing each other, as if they were having a conversation. 'I'll be right back,' Jack said, and put down the towel.
Outside he didn't know what to do, so he just stood there and watched them. It startled him when they appeared to watch him back. They turned to stand side by side, and then they looked up at him. Though he knew it was crazy to think these actual squirrels could have anything to do with the game, and almost as crazy to talk to them, he said, 'I'm sorry I can't seem to win. To get you out of the maze.' The squirrels looked at him. 'I'll keep trying.' Then, feeling really dumb, and ashamed, as if he'd let down his dad in some way, he went back inside and finished drying the dishes. (pp. 19-20)
Rachel Pollack's latest novel, The Child Eater, is her first novel-length fiction since 2002. It is an interesting novel in that it contains elements in common with portal fantasies, most especially a force that threatens two worlds, without there ever being an actual crossing over from one world to another. It is a story of two boys, separated by time and dimensional space, who depend nonetheless on each other in order to defeat the eponymous "child eater" who has been terrorizing both worlds.
Pollack, in alternating chapters, focuses on the lives of two young boys, the wizard-to-be Matyas and a prescient boy on Earth named Simon Wisdom. Utilizing elements from tarot, including the Tarot of Eternity, to construct her tale, Pollack weaves together Matyas and Simon's lives to create a fascinating tale of ambition and redemption. The reader is first introduced to Matyas and we see him struggle to be admitted into training by the wizards. We see his burning ambition, his desire to become powerful and famous. In contrast, Simon is the product of a father who wishes to be normal and a mother who seems to be otherworldly. At the time of the story, she has been gone for a decade, presumed dead. Simon turns out to be prescient, able to read minds and to foretell the immediate future. This alarms his father and Simon is urged to suppress these talents, despite Simon being well-liked and admired by his peers.
Yet one day, similar to what happened to his father Jack, Simon begins to see an odd squirrel pair, a grey and a red (uncertain if this is the American Red or the more commonly-known Eurasian Red Squirrel), and he has visions associated with suffering and the desire for release. Meanwhile, Matyas finds himself drawing perilously close to a powerful wizard who has managed to hide his name from discovery, allowing him to indiscriminately prey upon young children and consume their souls. Pollack does a good job in developing these parallel stories, as there were only a few rare occasions where one story would lag or become too focused on scene development at the expense of character growth.
The plot progresses steadily between these two stories, as Matyas and Simon each discover on their own clues toward the resolution of the mysteries confronting them (ultimately the Child Eater). Pollack's use of tarot terminology at first was confusing to me, but after a few occurrences, the mysticism associated with tarot decks made better sense. By novel's end, there is a resonance between Matyas and Simon's stories that goes beyond the similarities of their struggles. Yet for me, the most fascinating thing about Pollack's novel is her choice of using squirrels as a medium between the two worlds that Matyas and Simon inhabit. This is not merely because of my long-standing references to my favorite rodents, but because there truly is a surprising depth to the mystery surrounding these appearances by the grey and red squirrel that is not resolved until the concluding chapters.
The Child Eater is a hard novel to evaluate, because Pollack does several things well, but nothing is ever really outstanding. The prose is adequate to the task, but there is little that is memorable about the dialogue or what the two protagonists reflect upon. The characterizations are fine, yet ultimately the two act in familiar fashion for those familiar with tales of young protagonists battling a threatening evil. Ultimately, if it were not for the squirrels, The Child Eater would be your typical run-of-the-mill portal fantasy, albeit a well-told one. But there are those intriguing, mysterious squirrels and they helped me engage enough with the story until their mystery was also explained, making this tale an enjoyable experience.