This 1953 novel by Wolf Mankowitz is set in a Jewish neighborhood London’s East End, where a little boy named Joe lives with his mother, His father has gone to Africa for reasons that aren’t fully explained (to work in the mines, I assumed), and so Joe’s mother supports them by working in a milliner’s shop. Their downstairs neighbor, a tailor named Mr. Kandinsky, is a central figure in Joe’s life, eating meals with Joe and his mother and keeping a friendly eye on Joe when his mother is away at work and Joe is left free to wander the neighborhood.
It’s Mr. Kandinsky who tells Joe about the power of unicorns to grant wishes, and Joe, who wants to see him and his neighbors all get the things the want, decides that a unicorn would be a much better pet than the day-old chicks he regularly buys at the market only to have them die soon after. So Joe heads to the market in search of a unicorn, and at the end of the market, he finds one. Its horn hasn’t grown in, and its legs are twisted, but Joe must have it. The little
goat unicorn, soon named Africana, becomes Joe’s constant companion, as Joe imagines them going to Africa together, finding their parents, and having great adventures.
This is a light little book, meant, I think, to be charming and sweet while also revealing some of the difficulties of working-class life—a celebration of the imagination and innocence of children and the power of hope even in hard times. I, however, couldn’t quite connect with it. Some scenes were amusing. Joe’s imaginings about his African adventures were fun. And the ending, involving a marriage proposal and a bittersweet farewell. And I appreciated the way the adults generally handled Joe’s fantasies with kindness. Yet…
I think part of what was going on for me is that I needed more context. The Bloomsbury edition offers no introduction or background information. Joe’s father’s journey to Africa may have been a common sort of thing at the time of the story, but given the adults’ tendency to feed Joe fantasy, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Africa story was a euphemism for some other abandonment.
I also couldn’t stop fretting about Africana. He’s a sickly baby goat living under a table in a tailor’s shop! Several characters do express concern about his health, observing that a “unicorn” like him should be lively and “full of beans,” but it takes them much too long to do anything about it. I know that standards around animal treatment vary across times and places, and there’s no actual cruelty here. Still, Africana was suffering, and I wanted someone to help, and my worry about him kept me from sinking in to the rest of the story. (Things turn out well on that score—or as well as can be expected.)
Have you ever had niggling worries like this that take you out of a story?