Title: The Christmas Mystery
Author: Jostein Gaarder. Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells
Published: Phoenix, 1998, pp. 247. Originally published in Norwegian 1992
Blurb: A young boy finds a faded, home-made Advent calendar in a bookshop. A piece of paper falls out of the first window on which is written the first part of an extraordinary story about a small girl who travels back in time to Bethlehem and the birth of Christ… Meanwhile, the intertwining story of the present unfolds, and the boy finds out about the strange man who made the calendar and about a girl who disappeared on Christmas Eve 40 years ago.
When, where and why: One 1st of December, when I was at primary school, my mother produced this book along with the eagerly anticipated chocolate Advent calendar when my sister and I came home in the evening. The Christmas Mystery is a sort of Advent calendar in book form, with one section of the story being revealed each day, and so every evening the family would sit together and be entralled as either my mother or father read us that day’s chapter. In the absence of a chocolate Advent calendar this year, I decided to read this book for myself for the first time. As I’m reviewing out of sequence to get the Christmas books out of the way before January starts, this rather confusingly counts as book 42/50 for my Books Off the Shelf Challenge.
What I thought: I was a little bit worried when I began this book that it wouldn’t live up to the memories I had of it, tinged as they were with sentimental recollections of childhood Christmases, but it turns out that I needn’t have been so anxious. Even though I didn’t have the excitement of experiencing this book for the first time (and it says a lot about it that I can still remember so much of it, including chunks of dialogue) it was still a really interesting read, and there are things that I noticed this time around which no doubt went over my head when I was eight or nine. Although the story is simple enough and sufficiently engaging to be read and understood by young children, it includes some quite complicated ideas and there is more than enough material here to keep adults interested as well.
The Christmas Mystery manages to have a very strong message without being didactic and, although the framing narrative with its cast of angels and shepherds is undoubtedly Christian in flavour, the message itself is universal: peace and goodwill to all mankind. The way that Gaarder puts this across is so straightforward and simple that it’s very effective. He makes bold statements such as ‘For there’s no sense in believing what’s right unless it leads to helping people in distress’ (p. 113) that make his message seem clear and easy. These lines of wisdom are shared out between all the characters, ranging from Elisabet, the little girl, to the angels of God, emphasising its universal nature and its ease. I was impressed at how moral this book managed to be without ever being irritating.
This was definitely helped by the fascinating story, which is described with the same straightforward tone, applying logic to impossible situations. For example, when Elisabet is despairing of ever catching up with the little lamb that she chases out of a department store, thereby starting her journey through time and space, she thinks:
The worst of it was that she realised she was unlikely ever to catch up with the lamb. She had decided to follow it to the ends of the earth, but the earth was round, after all, so they might go on running round the world forever, or at any rate until she grew up, and by then she might have lost interest in such things as lambs. (p. 15)
The statement is simultaneously supremely logical and utterly bizarre, and is typical of the quirkiness of this excellent book.
The mise en abime structure of The Christmas Mystery, whereby there are Advent calendars inside Advent calendars and mysteries inside mysteries, is very well thought out. Each day, the reader opens the calendar door and is allowed to see more of Joachim and his parents trying to puzzle out what happened to Elisabet as they open their own Advent calendar door and discover more of her story as she runs back in time to Bethlehem, accompanied by angels, shepherds, sheep, wise men and Romans. I enjoyed the different layers of narrative and how the two were intertwined. I do think that the external mystery regarding the real Elisabet was wrapped up a bit quickly and I found it a little unsatisfactory, but that is my only issue with what is otherwise a genuinely wonderful book, highly recommended to all.
Where this book goes: This book is staying on my shelves. I don’t think that I’ll read it every year, but I definitely want to read it again in the future.