The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1952)

Book review: The Borrowers #1: The Borrowers by Mary Norton (Puffin Books, 1997 [1952], from The Complete Borrowers)

The Complete BorrowersThe Borrowers—the Clock family: Homily, Pod, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Arrietty, to be precise—are tiny people who live underneath the kitchen floor of an old English country manor. All their minuscule home furnishings, from postage stamp paintings to champagne cork chairs, are “borrowed” from the “human beans” who tromp around loudly above them. All is well until Pod is spotted upstairs by a human boy! Can the Clocks stay nested safely in their beloved hidden home, or will they be forced to flee?

Welcome to my childhood! I can still remember one of the book covers, which have them all in a teapot floating down a river. 🙂

As detailed in the description above, The Borrowers is about the Clocks: teenage daughter Arrietty, father Pod and mother Homily. They are a family of so-called Borrowers, little people who live in under the floorboards and in the walls of old buildings. They live a fairly comfortable life under the kitchen floor of Aunt Sophy’s country house, but Arrietty wants to see more of the world, and she wants to learn how to “borrow” just like her father.

The worst thing for a Borrower is to be “Seen” by one of the big ones – i.e. one of us. A young boy temporarily living with his elderly relative Sees Arrietty on her very first outing, but instead of being mortified, Arrietty and the boy become friends. Her parents come around to this terrifying idea when the boy decides to help them make their lives a little more comfortable … but while a Borrower will only borrow things that humans won’t ever miss, a human boy might not be quite that stealthy.

What surprised me most, simply because I had no recollection of it, is that the story is told by an old woman to a young girl (think The Princess Bride or Edward Scissorhands), so not straight just the Borrowers themselves. It means that the ending is very abrupt. There are a lot of things happening and then the old lady basically says “well, and that’s the end” and then there’s a bit of the two of them talking, and the old lady sort of gives an epilogue of what probably happened to the Clock family, which feels a bit strange. Perhaps it was there in case the author wouldn’t get to write a sequel – which she then did, and the story presumably continues from where it left off.

As a child, I really enjoyed reading these stories, and now, maybe 20 (or more) years later, I’m still really enjoying them. They have certainly stood the test of time! The Borrowers is well-written and very detailed and imaginative, which is probably the main reason why I think it’s great. Mary Norton has ensured we get the full picture of what a Borrower’s home looks like, what they use to decorate their space and what they use for their daily lives. The “fine china” are coins, for instance, and blotting paper (do kids these days even know what that is?) makes for a nice carpet. Little things like that.

We’ve all misplaced little things, or we just can’t find them when we need them, and we thought we knew where they were, and that they have been used by little people living hidden away in our very homes is a brilliant idea. Can’t find that thimble you thought was in your sewing kit? A Borrower must have taken it. Obviously. (I do wonder what they do with all those missing socks, though …) To explain the little things in life that no one really pays attention to until they’re pointed out is precisely also what JK Rowling does in the Harry Potter books, and they’re loved by millions of people of all ages!

Is, then, The Borrowers a sort of precursor to Harry Potter? Err, now we’re straying into far deeper waters than is necessary for a review of children’s literature – and indeed this blog – so the short answer is “no, probably not” because they have sod all else in common.

But if you have kids of an impressionable age, say 7-10, put The Borrowers in their hands and show them the world of these little people, because their minds will be all the richer for it. If you’re concerned about the length, don’t worry. It’s only about 100 pages or so, and it’s illustrated as well. I’ve been reading the omnibus edition which has the cast of the dreadful 1997 film on the cover (see beginning of post), which I’m not keen on, but hey, it gave me all six stories in one volume, and I don’t have to look at the cover when I’m reading.

4.5 out of 5 bottles of Madeira.

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