What happens to imaginary friends when we outgrow them? Most of us have one as we're growing up, but the day comes when they're no longer needed. The "friendship" is usually an innocent thing; but this is far from true in A. F. Harrold's unsettling new novel The Imaginary. This might be a tale of a girl and her pretend pal, but it certainly isn't the cozy story you might expect.
One day, Amanda Shuffleup finds a boy hiding in her wardrobe and the two of them become firm friends. Rudger is fun, friendly and on the same wavelength as Amanda. The two of them get on famously. It doesn't matter to Amanda that Rudger doesn't really exist: thanks to her vivid imagination, the pair gets up to all sorts of adventures.
The author is also a performance poet, and this talent certainly shows in this beautifully written book. Harrold's story-telling style is humorous, classy and chilling when it needs to be. He knows how to blur the edges between reality and imagination, and as Rudger takes on a life of his own, Harrold leads his story into very unexpected territory.
One morning someone rings the doorbell of Amanda's home. Mrs Shuffleup answers, and finds a bizarrely dressed man standing on the doorstep. He introduces himself as Mr Bunting and says he is there to do a survey. Amanda's mum doesn't have time to talk to him and quickly gets rid of the strange caller.
But Bunting has come to the Shuffleup home with a very sinister purpose.
Bunting, who turns out to be a spooky villain of the first rank, hunts children's imaginary friends, or "imaginaries", and wipes them out - by eating them. He has his sights set on Rudger, and from that first doorbell ring, Rudger's existence is under serious threat.
When Amanda has to go to hospital after an accident, Rudger is on his own. What will happen to him if Amanda doesn't survive? By this point, Harrold has lured the reader so deep into the story that you forget you are rooting for an imaginary being. A very skilful and imaginative writer is at work here.
Separated from Amanda, Rudger is soon running for his life. But who can help him if no one actually knows he is there? How will Rudger escape fading into nothingness or, worse still, being eaten by Bunting?
The Imaginary is a story about that most precious of human qualities, imagination. It can take you anywhere, as Harrold expertly shows in this gripping and beautifully told story.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com.