Monday, 10 March 2014

Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell

Shipwrecked in the English Channel when she was just one year old, Sophie has been looked after ever since by her kindly guardian Charles. She is sure her mother must still be alive somewhere, though, and she is adamant that she remembers her: a flash of red hair, a glimpse of worn, black trousers, cello music on the breeze. But how can she convince Charles that she’s right? Charles always tells Sophie, “Never ignore a possible”, so when she finally discovers a clue to who her mother is/was, he agrees to take her to Paris and investigate.

Rooftoppers is a timeless sort of a story, set before motorcars and mobile phones, but I’m not sure exactly when. And when Sophie and Charles reach Paris, they are stone-walled by the authorities, so it’s up to Sophie to follow the clues on her own – unless her new friend, homeless rooftopper Matteo, will help her. All she has to do is show him she can run across the roofs of the city as fast and far as he can. “It’s wilder than you think,” she says, as they run and jump, the city spread out below them, bejeweled in the twilight. As their friendship grows, they feed birds whilst standing on a homemade tightrope, and dive for coins in the river Seine, following the clues and the sound of cello music. Will they find Sophie’s mum, the mysterious Vivienne Vert?

Katherine Rundell has penned a lovely, gentle story that rolls with the undulation of the rooftops that her characters patter across. There are moments of calm and wonder, moments of terror and tension – just reading about Matteo and Sophie crossing a street between two rooftops by tightrope was enough to give me vertigo. And then there’s the moment when he dangles her from the roof of a the police headquarters so she can peer in the window of the records office, or when the cross into the territory of the gariers, who defend their part of the rooftop domain by tooth and nail. It’s equally exciting and nail-biting.

But will they have a happy ending? Will the possibility of Sophie’s mother become a reality? Plenty of people are going to stand in Sophie’s way, but she’s a determined little girl who does not take “no” for an answer. I enjoyed Rooftoppers, but have one single criticism: it ended so very abruptly! I would like to have know what happened next – what happened to Sophie’s new friends? To Charles? What did the authorities do next? Gah!

Overall, though, Rooftoppers is a charming story about never giving up no matter how hopeless a quest might seem – and about believing in yourself even when others are telling you it’s silly. It would fit particularly well, I think, for readers who enjoy Eva Ibbotson or Noel Streatfeild, or last years Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlisted novel, The Wolf Princess.

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