Roof’s a stuff that will endure.
O unhappy youth,
Come not within these doors, within this roof
The enemy of all your graces lives.
– Adam, As You Like It, act II, scene III –
‘Roof’ is a funny word, don’t you think? Say it aloud a few times. A bit strange, n’est-ce pas? Something between ‘rough’ and ‘woof.’ And what about the plural form – do we drop the f for ves? ‘Well,’ I hear you ask, ‘how often does one need to consider multiple roofs?’ Well, in the case of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers, very often indeed.
Beautifully illustrated by Terry Fan, Rooftoppers is the story of Sophie, a child with hair ‘the colour of lightning.’ Her guardian, Charles, chooses the name Sophie for its ordinariness; ‘Your day has been extraordinary enough, child,’ he tells his one-year-old companion. This observation counts as characteristic understatement from the scholarly Charles: he has just plucked Sophie from a floating cello case after their ship sinks in the English Channel.
Charles is a kind and enigmatic man who speaks ‘English to people, French to cats and Latin to the birds.’ Despite his best efforts, though, the National Childcare Agency is skeptical of his child-rearing abilities:
‘But what are you going to do with her?’
Charles looked bewildered. ‘I am going to love her. That should be enough, if the poetry I’ve read is anything to go by.’
As so often, Charles is right. He raises Sophie to be formidable, fearless and a fan of Shakespeare. Her stubbornness, though, is quite her own, and manifests itself most urgently in the question of her mother, who is assumed to have drowned in the aforementioned shipping tragedy. Nobody believes Sophie when she maintains that she remembers her mother, while her quest to find her is regarded as futile. Even her loving guardian is doubtful. Undeterred, Sophie ignores the nay-sayers, and hoists Charles by his own petard by repeating his most important life lesson: ‘Never ignore a possible.’
This grain of hope, combined with threats from the National Childcare Agency, takes Sophie and Charles to Paris. In the City of Lights the story, as it were, hits the roof. The intrepid duo discover that there is much more to the mystery of Sophie’s mother and that the authorities are strangely reluctant to discuss it. To uncover the truth Sophie has to become a rooftopper.
Within most roofs, indeed, live enemies of Sophie’s graces. Under one are the answers she seeks. In her quest to find her mother she forms a crucial partnership with a veteran rooftopper named Matteo, a child who, against all the odds, ekes out an existence atop the roofs of Paris. Initially uncertain in her new world (to paraphrase the Fool in Twelfth Night, roof’s a stuff will not endure), Sophie quickly develops the physical and mental fortitude needed to survive at such heights. Defying glass, gables, gravity and the ghoulish gariers, the pair weave music, meat and a touch of madness in the pursuit of Sophie’s dream.
The biggest criticism one can make of Rooftoppers is that it might encourage the children who read it to take to the roofs themselves (though Rundell may not regard this as a bad thing; she was fond of rooftopping during her undergraduate days in Oxford). In literary terms, it is a story rich in love and magic and clever recurring details; as Hamlet said, a ‘majestical roof fretted with golden fire.’