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A Crack In the Line
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Review of A CRACK IN THE LINE by Michael Lawrence

by Becky Laney

Lawrence, Michael. 2004. A CRACK IN THE LINE. New York: Greenwillow. ISBN 0060724773.

Originally published in the UK in 2003, A CRACK IN THE LINE was first published in the US in 2004. It is important for the reader to remember the novel is set in England--as I think that as long as you remember that the surroundings, language (slang) and some habits (culture) it will all make better sense.

Alaric Underwood is sixteen years old and living with his father in the now decrepit house/estate Withern Rise. Originally built by Aldous Underwood in the 1880's, since the demise of Alaric's mother, the house has literally started to fall apart. His father, Ivan, is unmotivated to keep things repaired. Hence at the beginning of the novel, Alaric is left semi-alone in a house with a heavy snow storm and no central heat in the house--it broke down a couple of days before.

Alaric's mother, Alex (Alexandra), had died exactly two years before on that very night in a horrible train wreck--the train had flown off the tracks because of a crack in the line--hence the title of the book. "Later they were to learn that a single rail had been responsible for the accident. Already weakened by a 'rolling contact fatigue crack,' the freezing conditions of recent weeks had made the rail so brittle that when the wheels of this particular train on this particular night reached it, the section had shattered like glass into more than three hundred pieces. In spite of its enormous bulk and weight, the engine had shot up into the sky with a grinding roar, taking two of the passenger cars with it" (16-17). His mother did not die on the scene, however, she arrived at the local hospital and underwent a surgery where she was given a fifty-fifty chance to survive.

Alaric is depressed because his father is leaving in the midst of this horrible storm to go meet his mistress Kate Faraday and bring her back home to stay. In the meanwhile, Alaric's somewhat eccentric aunt Liney is coming to stay with him until his father's return. He is so not thrilled with the idea.

When Alaric goes into the River Room--which has essentially been closed off since his mother's death--he is looking around the room seeing furniture and knick-knacks and various objects that are bringing back specific memories (flash back scenes for the reader) about his mother. He picks up one particular object--an object his mother had called LEXIE's FOLLY--which is a miniature wooden replica of their house and gardens, Withern Rise. When he picks up this object he is overwhelmed with feelings of wanting to go back to the way things were when his mother was still alive and when his house wasn't such a dump. Suddenly, Alaric feels strange--a strange pain--and he finds himself suddenly in the garden outside with heavy snow falling on him. Then just as suddenly he is transported back to the River Room--but he's not alone.

Naia Underwood, also 16 years old, literally gets the shock of her life when this strange young boy appears out of thin air--wearing slippers covered with snow. This young man--whom she suddenly realizes could be her identical twin brother because they're so similar--is claiming that SHE is the intruder and that this is HIS house. But he begins looking around the house and realizes that hey--this place is first of all warm and second...it is still cared for--well cared for. Neither quite believes it when they both claim to be UNDERWOODS.

Alaric, overwhelmed with the strangeness of it all, grabs the FOLLY and suddenly pops back into his own reality--the cold neglected River Room.

At first both Naia and Alaric aren't quite sure what to make of the situation. Neither believes that they could have just imagined something like that happening. It had to be real...but what does this mean?

Through traveling back and forth through each other's realities--they realize that they are in fact the same person- albeit different genders. Naia is the one smart enough to realize that they are traveling between alternate realities--and that for every choice/situation where there was a fifty-fifty chance of decision or outcome--another reality springs into existence where the opposite outcome/decision was made/reached. There are subtle differences between their two realities: Alaric's a boy, Naia's a girl; Alaric's mother died; Naia's alive and well and baking cookies; Alaric has an aunt Liney; and Naia doesn't--Liney was aborted in Naia's reality. Another big difference: Alex (the mother) won the lottery a year after Aleric's mother died so the house has undergone major revision/restoration.

It is a learning experience for them--they don't know how the FOLLY works or why. They just know that for some reason they are suddenly able to shift back and forth between realities. Alaric, of course, is jealous that Naia still has a mother. Naia, of course, feels sorry that Alaric's life is so miserable. ****PLOT SPOILER****** Yet neither expects the ending...what if when they were in each other's realities...the FOLLY in one world was destroyed....essentially trapping them in each other's places permanently.

A CRACK IN THE LINE is a sci-fi/fantasy novel full of alternate realities and a magical tree that acts as a catalyst between realities. The tree itself--and its biproducts like logs, wooden planks, and LEXIE'S FOLLY--all have the power to transport these people back and forth between realities. But are Naia and Aleric the only travelers??? Or is there yet another mystery--who is that old man in both realities that always looks so sad and out of place???? And why are both Naia and Aleric drawn to a grave of Aldous Underwood--1934-1945????

It is a novel that is FIRST in a series (perhaps a trilogy as one review said) and as such often asks more questions than it answers. The end of the book is not neat and tidy--it is essentially a flashing neon sign saying "To Be Continued..." you'll have to wait to see what happens.... Some may be annoyed that they have just spent all their time and energy reading a book--that's 323 pages long--and did not really find a satisfactory ending with all questions and mysteries answered and solved. BUT in a way, I feel it is exciting. I like the fact that there is more to come. I want to know what happens next...so I will be waiting for the rest of the series.

Another quote...

Alaric felt like the last person on earth. "I'm the only one left." [the phrase that the mysterious old man had said earlier in the book] The old man in the black coat was suddenly in Alaric's mind. The only time he'd seen this reality's version of him, he'd been loitering just across the river there. It seemed likely that in both realities he was merely some poor old boy with a wandering mind; but they'd been something in the eyes that met his in the lane at Naia's. The look of a person who'd just woken up and found that the world wasn't quite as it should be. Alaric could identify with that. Many times, even before his mother died, he'd had an unaccountable feeling that his surrounding were less real than they pretended; that the people he saw every day were somehow counterfeit, part of a performance or charade put on for his benefit. And sometimes, when walking or sitting on his own, he seemed to feel a presence or catch a movement at the utmost edge of his eye. There was never anyone there, but in the light of all that he'd learned recently it seemed reasonable to suppose, as Naia had suggested, that such sensations were glimpses into realities the thinnest of membranes away. Maybe, at such times, he almost saw or heard another version of himself: Naia perhaps. Or the other Alaric? (249-250)

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