Friday 26 March 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

PAPER WINGS by Linda Sargent. Pbk. Omnes books.

Anyone who was at Charney Manor in 2005 will remember Linda Sargent. She held us spellbound in the solar ( doesn’t that sound like the title of a book?) as she told the story of the Pedlar of Swaffham. Now she’s written a short novel which is equally enchanting. Linda is a friend of mine and though I feel I have to disclose this right at the start, I also have to reiterate that what I’m doing when I write about books is a kind of tugging at people’s sleeves to say: hey, read this, you’ll love it. Here is a link to the blurb,
Not only does this tell you the basic facts about the novel, it also shows you the cover image by Hannah Firmin, which is both beautiful and appropriate. Firmin gave the Ma Ramotswe stories by Alexander McCall Smith their distinctive look and this novel ,too, is very well-served by her.
Linda Sargent shares a background and something of a biography with her ten-year-old heroine Ruby. She, too, was born in Kent. Her father was a hop drier and Linda remembers going down on her bike with his lunch in her basket to wherever he was working. She also remembers reading books in the bunk room of the oasthouse, and these memories give authenticity and a solid base to a tale which has its fantastical elements as well as being a ‘realistic’ story. It also, incidentally, makes a nonsense of age-banding - it really is suitable for “everyone from eight to eighty.”
Ruby and Peter are friends. More than anything in the world, Ruby longs to fly. Peter and Ruby make a pair of wings using body parts from a dead swan. She tries them out by climbing a tree and leaping off it and of course she injures herself. She’s helped by Gabriel, who up till then has been an unseen, hidden presence in the nearby wood. The children have previously thought of him as a ghost. From that day, keeping Gabriel secret and helping him realize a totally impractical dream becomes their main aim, all through the days of this long summer. Gabriel is haunted by his past. There are gipsies camping nearby, one of whom, Oby, is a friend of Ruby and Peter’s. A man named Stan is a sinister and baleful presence around the farm and the horrors of the Second World War cast long shadows over the events of the novel.
The writing is both direct and poetic. Reading this short novel, you’ll be reminded at different times of fairy tales, or traditional folk stories, or even writers like Robert Westall and David Almond, but Sargent has her own very distinctive voice and it’s one that deserves to be heard. The last sentence of all is especially effective and stays in the memory for a long time after you’ve finished reading the book.

GOOD TO A FAULT by Marina Endicott Pbk. Windmill Books.

A single, law-abiding, churchgoing, respectable woman called Clara accidentally drives her car into another vehicle. No one is seriously hurt, but Clara is shaken by what she’s done. She feels responsible and guilty. In the other car are Lorraine and Clayton, their three children and Clayton’s mother, Mrs Pell. Clara takes them to the local hospital where it’s discovered that Lorraine has terminal cancer. Clara then invites the whole family to stay in her house with her while Lorraine undergoes treatment. The novel progresses from there.
If you feel you’ve read too many books already which deal with death from cancer, don’t be put off. This Canadian novel is quite different from what you might be expecting. It has in abundance a quality that is probably underrated and yet is at the same time the real acid test of a book: you cannot stop reading it. You HAVE to turn the pages. You MUST find out what happens next. Sometimes when books have this quality, it’s at the expense of literary merit, but not here. Endicott writes a simple, very elegant, very emotion-packed prose and best of all, her characters, (quite eccentric, some of them, especially the grotesque Mrs. Pell) are completely believable, human, flawed, loveable and real. All three children are brilliantly described and imagined. There’s a priest called Paul who’s one of the most sympathetic clerics you’ll ever meet. He has a tendency, almost a tic, of quoting from the poets (and Endicott tells us in an afterword where the quotations come from.)
I’m not sure the title is right for the book, though it’s true of Clara. Nor is the cover image exactly what you’d expect, but none of this matters. Endicott is a marvellous find. This is her second novel and the first to be published in this country. I was very much hoping for the novel to be on the Orange longlist and I’m sorry it’s not. I reckon it’s a real corker and one which constantly surprises the reader. I’ve been telling everyone I know about it and recommending it in comments boxes all over the blogosphere. Please try it.

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