It's a bildungsroman, but with the significant difference that the protagonist who lives and learns and is corrupted and breaks free is not your usual sensitive male youth, but a female person of restricted growth (or whatever the current polite euphemism is). Miss M.'s dwarfism compounds her outsider status and guarantees that her angle on the common life of commonly sized people is odd to the point of alien. It's a weird book. If I were trying to sell de la Mare to the reading public (and I suppose in a small way i am) I would characterise him as an English surrealist. That isn't really accurate, but it has the merit of cutting through the imputation of Georgian whimsy in which his reputation remains fogbound. He is not whimsical at all- but a writer of precise, minutely detailed- and felt- observation- hard, ecstatic, cruel. No-one has ever called him a modernist, but there's much in this book- no least its unforgiving difficulty- that sets him alongside such near contemporaries as Woolf and Joyce. He writes a poet's prose- and takes us to some strange places and mental states. There is lesbianism, amour fou, suicide, social criticism, shiny, shiny wit- and a travelling circus. There are no ghosts- and yet there are- because at every point the world of the spirit presses against the skin of materiality and almost but never quite breaks through. Death is never far away. Do you gather that I love this book? You'd be right.
The odd thing- given that I adore de la Mare- and this is probably his masterpiece- is that I never read it before. In fact I tried- once- a good while back- and bounced off its immaculately wrought surface. This time it let me in. There are certain books- and this is one- that will only admit you after life has messed you about to the point where you are ready to accomodate the strangeness of their vision.