The spiritsÂ of Lear and Belloc are channelled in Barbara Nicholâ€™s arousingly illogical book of light verse,Â The Lady from Kent, about, well, a lady who says sheâ€™s from Kent. But as we quickly learn the Lady says a lot of things, few of which relate to a recognizable reality. They sure are entertaining, though.
The book is divided into sections, told to an unseen narrator, that function as a kind of absurdist resumÃ©. In â€œEarly Years,â€ we meet the Ladyâ€™s pet raccoon. When the Lady was a child, she instructed the animal to play the violin (and spoons), earning the animalâ€™s lifelong loyalty. â€œSome Worthy Actsâ€ catalogues the Ladyâ€™s generosity: in addition to running a charm school for bats, she taught â€œautumn leaves to fallâ€ and â€œgiants to be small.â€
â€œOddities and Accomplishmentsâ€ (which couldÂ describe the whole book) boasts of how the Lady does the daily crossword â€œnever looking at the cluesâ€ and bakes chocolate cake â€œwithout ingredients.â€ Her claim of having invented the bathing cap and rake, however, provokes skepticism on the part of the narrator (the rake, after all, â€œis eons oldâ€). This causes the Lady to become peevish, her tone â€œvery coldâ€: â€œHer answer came so quickly / That it might have been rehearsed: / â€œI said I had invented it, / Not that I was first!â€
â€œA Business Ventureâ€ describes how the Lady once befriended a â€œvast swarm of killer beesâ€ that she trained to perform circus acts disguised as fleas, all while remaining mindful of the capitalist imperative: â€œShe taught them to walk tightropes, / And bring tigers to submission, / And many other wondrous feats, /For which she charged admission.â€
This is the ninth childrenâ€™s book by the multi-talented Nichol (who also created the beloved recordingÂ Beethoven Lives Upstairs) and the fourth by illustrator Bill Pechet. An architect and designer by trade, Pechet once represented Canada at the Venice Biennale with the worldâ€™s largest polar-fleece garment, giving him exactly the right credentials for this project.
The Lady from KentÂ is so musical and clever it comes as a surprise when the rhymes occasionally mash their gears. But think of that as praising with faint damnation: page after page, Nichol shores up surface whimsy with blazing originality and intelligence.