The Child from the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge — New Review

During my degree, my university halls of residence closed down their library, and offered students very cheap deals on all the books. Having read The Little White Horse as a child, I rescued two Elizabeth Goudge novels, which I dutifully put on a shelf and forgot about. In the intervening years, I borrowed a copy of The White Witch, memorable largely for the fact that at one point the narrative dives unexpectedly into the inner monologue of a horse. To say I didn’t know what to expect from The Child from the Sea would be an understatement. For most of the book, I wasn’t even sure which historical period it was set in. (My thanks to Nickie, who worked out that it was the English Civil war, and that Prince Charles was about to become Charles II.) As it turns out, protagonist Lucy Walter is a real person, as are most of the characters she interacts with.

When occasion demanded she could play the great lady very well indeed; and quite instinctively, for the golden thread of the Princess Ness was interwoven with the buccaneer, and for a short while she could enjoy the calm of gracious living.

The Child from the Sea, Elizabeth Goudge

The opening chapters were thoroughly enchanting. The evocative fairy tale language reminded me of my favourite descriptions of Moonacre Valley in The Little White Horse. I didn’t know before reading that the theme of home — one of my preoccupations — would be so important, and I was pleased with the number of entries I added to my blog of literary dwellings. Lucy was a home-maker in the style of a more down-to-earth Anne Shirley. Instead of imagining places more comforting than they are, Lucy makes them so with pictures and ornaments.

The blood and darkness vanished and Lucy’s mind was full of wine-cups and apples, steepled churches and lovely ladies in head-dresses tall and pointed like the steeples.

The Child from the Sea, Elizabeth Goudge

While these descriptions were enough to keep me reading, they were somewhat let down by the plot and characterisation. Lucy spends a lot of the book alone, and when the narrative is just a description of her circumstances, rather than a specific incident, I wasn’t quite sure what the point was. Even when they did happen, specific conversations between characters lacked immediacy. Elizabeth Goudge offered tantalising glimpses into the inner lives of Anne Hill and Lord Taaffe, and I sometimes wished I were reading a book about them, because their emotions seemed stronger and more well-realised. As much as I appreciated the perspectives of these minor characters, I did find the choice of when to switch into their narratives to be a little mystifying. When Lucy loses a beloved parent, one of the moments of what should be the highest emotion for her character, the narrative distances itself from her, and we only get to see her through the eyes of Lord Taaffe.

Politics is treated in a similar way. The Child from the Sea can’t seem to decide whether it is a novel about the English Civil War and the return to power of the monarchy or not. For much of the novel, Lucy is kept quite separate from the political situation, and the story being told is one of personal relationships. This would be fine, except that later on, the story takes a political turn, which feels quite disorientating. It’s not a total failure, and I was able to follow the politics to a degree, but it added to the sense that I was never quite sure what the book was about.

Overall, I’d recommend The Child from the Sea more for its descriptions and themes than its story or its characterisation.

Next, I’ll be reading Island by Aldous Huxley.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley — New Review

Rebecca bought me Jane Austen at Home for either my birthday or Christmas, for the obvious reason that I enjoy reading Jane Austen’s novels. I’d never thought before about how much of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are about finding a secure home, and I most enjoyed the parts of Jane Austen at Home that focused on that, because I’m always interested in the idea of homes. The insights into Jane’s situation (and that of her sister, Cassandra) as single women also played into themes I’ve been interested in.

So far, so good for Stoneleigh Abbey: it had been handed smoothly from father to son seven times, and most of those involved were called Thomas.

Jane Austen at Home, Lucy Worsley

I learned a lot of interesting titbits about Georgian England, including the fact that for letters carrying bad news, people used black sealing wax, so that the recipients would have some warning before they opened the letter. Sadly, I did feel that a lot of the material around these interesting themes and facts was quite dull, and it took me a full month and a bit to get through this book, which is unusual. Of course it makes sense for a biography to be written in broadly chronological order, but I wonder if it would have held my attention better had it been more focused on grouping by theme or topic.

I’d definitely recommend this to people who enjoy both biography and Jane Austen’s novels, but perhaps not so much for anyone who is looking for literary criticism. Next, I’ll be reading The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes.

For Jane, then, it doesn’t matter what books you read, even if your choice is ‘trashy’ Gothic novels. It’s what you make of them, how you behave in consequence, that counts.

Jane Austen at Home, Lucy Worsley

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn — New Review

The Salt Path was a gift from a friend who knows I collect and read books with lighthouses on the cover, and wasn’t the kind of book I’d usually pick up to read. The premise — a married couple, one of whom is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and who have lost their house, decide to walk the South West Coast Path — sounded like it was going to be self-consciously uplifting, which tends to grate on me.

“You’ll see many things, amazing things and suffer many set-backs, problems you’ll think you can’t overcome.” He reached forward and put his hand on Moth. “But you will overcome them, you’ll survive, and it will make you strong.” We looked at each other, wide-eyed, mouthing a silent ‘what?’. “And you’ll walk with a tortoise.”

The Salt Path, Raynor Winn

In actual fact, The Salt Path was more boring than anything else. While there are some nice descriptions of coastal scenes, nothing really happens. Ray and Moth walk, they camp, they eat and then they walk again. There’s some social commentary about homelessness, infrequent and brief meetings with other walkers, and just not a great deal else. It wasn’t bad — it was neither as grating or as depressing as it could have been, given the subject matter — but neither was it engaging. I found subject changes between one topic and another quite abrupt, and never really felt there was much point to anything.

The Salt Path did, at times, remind me of G K Chesterton’s The Rolling English Road, but that is both a quicker read and – in my opinion – a better one.

Next, I’ll be reading The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta — Reread Review

Picking up Finnikin of the Rock was a no-brainer for me. I already loved Melina Marchetta from reading Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son, so discovering that she’d also written a series in my favourite genre was pure delight. I bought Finnikin of the Rock in ebook form, so it was only when I came to write this review that I realised The Lumatere Chronicles are apparently shelved as children’s/teenage fiction. I’d argue that’s a miscategorisation, because Finnikin of the Rock gets dark. Melina Marchetta has a habit of putting her characters in truly bleak, awful situations – and then rescuing them. At points, especially in the first half, it reminded me of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. The horror of what happens to these characters got under my skin in the same kind of way.

Finnikin’s last image of Lumatere, as he slid beneath the jaws of the iron gate, was of a family separated.

Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta

The whole book revolves around themes of exile, of losing a home – a kingdom – and the choice between trying to take it back or trying to settle somewhere else. These are themes that really resonate with me, as someone who grew up moving between countries, and they’re what I remembered most from my first reading of Finnikin of the Rock. The idea of a whole kingdom of exiles, separated from their native land by magic, isn’t one I’ve seen in any other fantasy novel. It feels original, and though Finnikin of the Rock does feature a few fantasy tropes, they’re used in ways that feel different.

Lumaterans were nothing if not sentimental, drawn to any place that resembled the physical landscape of their lost world.

Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta

Above all else, though, Finnikin of the Rock is a deeply emotional novel. Melina Marchetta writes heartrendingly about loss, family and war. I really felt what the characters were feeling, and Finnikin of the Rock gets the dubious honour of being added to my ‘made me cry‘ shelf on goodreads. The second half — and it is nearly half, though I’d compressed it into a few chapters in my memory — is about recovery, and rebuilding. It’s much more hopeful, and the story ends on a satisfying high note. I didn’t absolutely need to rush out and read the second book in the trilogy, and this could honestly work as a standalone novel, but I’ll read Froi of the Exiles sooner or later anyway, because I love Melina Marchetta so much.

I’d recommend this to anyone who likes any of Melina Marchetta’s works, and to anyone who enjoyed the emotional impact of Outlander.

Next I’ll be reading The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard.

Rating: 4 out of 5.