Author Karen Foxlee invents amazing worlds and introduces us to fascinating characters through her absolutely beautiful writing – the words sing off the pages and into your heart. Her latest novel, Lenny’s Book of Everything (Allen & Unwin Books 2018) is a genre-shifter in that it is suitable and age-appropriate for middle readers and above, but it is definitely a story that adults and readers of all ages will connect with and find compelling.
The characters of Lenny and her little brother Davey will capture your imagination and refuse to let go. Lenny is smart, feisty and flawed. Her younger brother Davey is actually not her little brother at all, and that is the problem. Davey has a rare condition that means he doesn’t stop growing. At seven, he is as tall as a man, taller than his father, who disappears early on in the story and thereafter is known only through myth and family lore. It is the children’s mother, Cynthia Spink, who keeps them together, working two jobs and trying to make ends meet (the ends of Davey’s shrinking trousers, the end of his bed where his feet flop over the edge, the ends of his shoes through which his ever-lengthening toes keep poking holes).
The book, set in the early seventies, is scaffolded with the structure of the regular deliveries of issues of Burrell’s Build-It-At-Home Encyclopedia, the Gift of Knowledge which Cynthia Spink won through a competition. Each chapter is marked not only by the passing of time, but by two other measures: the arrival of another edition of the encyclopedia (Ants and Amphibians, for example, or later on Quasars and Quartz), and by Davey’s increasing height, which is physically marked by a pencil line on the door frame. And as time passes, as the children’s encyclopedia collection grows, and as Davey also continues to grow, it becomes evident to Lenny, the narrator of our story, that knowledge can’t fix everything, but that love really does encompass everything.
While the story revolves around Cynthia, Lenny and Davey Spink, the minor characters are just as engaging. Their eccentric Hungarian neighbour Mrs Gaspar who has a heart as big as the moon. Another neighbour, the enigmatic Mr Petersburg, tall and pale, quiet and wispy, who appears – ghost-like – in the stairwell to collect letters from various penitentiaries. Nanny Flora – far away and unfamiliar. Lenny’s school friends, CJ and Matthew Milford. Martha Brent – General Sales Manager at Burrell’s. The local fruit and veg man, Mr King. The mysterious Great Aunt Em, who turns out to be quite different from what Lenny imagines. All of these people orbit Lenny and Davey as the two children dream of running away to live in a log cabin at Great Bear Lake, or of finding their father and completing their family, or of finding a cure for Davey’s condition so that he might stop growing.
As we travel on the journey of this story, Lenny leading us with her interest in beetles, and Davey with his fascination with falcons, we learn a host of encyclopaedic facts about the world, but we also learn about love and loss and letting go. This book will break your heart, but it will also open your eyes to the mysteries and wonders of the world. And somehow, in the midst of all that, it will remind you of love and friendship, of the joy of being alive, and of the deep well of hope that lies within us all. It will restore your faith in humanity and prove that while ‘dark heart feelings’ might be a part of the human condition, these are balanced with optimism, yearning, promise and possibilities.