I am currently over in Victoria, BC, at a conference, and each day cycle past the gate in the hedge that surrounds the fields of Dark Creek Farm, where Nikki Tate lives with her turkeys and goats and bantams… So I really wanted, during this week, to re-read and review her No Cafés in Narnia, remembering how much I enjoyed it years ago when I first read it.
No Cafés in Narnia (2000)
When her beloved grandfather dies, Heather tries to escape into her literary worlds: the world she creates through her own nascent writing ability and the world of the books she reads. Sometimes she wants to “push through the coats at the back of an old wardrobe,” meet Mr. Tumnus, and “even find Lucy in the forest and the three of [them] could sit at a little table at the café together eating Turkish Delight and discussing how to solve all the problems of the world” (28): problems like how to manage when her mother slips into depression, and she has to face her troubling adolescent world, seemingly alone. To top it all off, she has thoughtlessly insulted “one of the only people at school who has spontaneously said anything nice to [her]” (70). With the problems in her family, and her trouble with friends, Heather is sure: there are No Cafés in Narnia.
Heather is fascinating, very real child protagonist: her mind wanders; she can’t focus easily; she struggles with being an outsider on the little island her family has recently moved to. She articulates her world through the eyes of her own protagonist, Writer Girl. Her alter ego’s attitudes and responses actually help her to see herself more objectively, to understand the balance she must create between being the child and striving to find the maturity her family needs from her. Her imagination blossoms in her self-assessments, in her diary entries, and in her letters to her best friend in Toronto. Her narrative ability is far more vibrant in her thoughts than she is able to get down on paper—but she continues trying. Ultimately, with the help and guidance of those around her—young and old—Heather makes the right choices, and the crises in her life become manageable.
What I like best about No Cafés in Narnia is Nikki Tate’s complete presentation of her characters’ lives. Even though in general “people like to read about danger, excitement, and romance,” Tate knows that “real writers take advantage of every moment, every experience, to enrich their work. They use all the mundane details…” (90). While this knowledge does not stop Heather from trying to write a murder mystery, it does reveal Tate’s belief about a writer’s goal, and the artistry of Tate’s own fiction.