Classics Club #62: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild *****

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in Autumn.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on affect it had from the beginning.

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One From the Archive: ‘I Am Forbidden’ by Anouk Markovits ****

I Am Forbidden is the first of Anouk Markovits’ books to be written in English. The novel opens in Szatmár, Transylvania, on the eve of the ‘five un-photographable years’ of the Second World War. We are introduced to the character of Zalman Stern, a very devout Jew, who was ‘not only a wonder of Torah knowledge, he also had the most beautiful voice east of Vienna’.

The second chapter then focuses on a young Jewish boy named Josef Lichtenstein and his baby sister, Pearela. His mother and sister are brutally murdered in his home by a smith ‘who often bragged about joining the Romanian Iron Guard’. He is rescued by the family’s housekeeper, a Christian woman named Florina, who tells him: ‘Your name is Anghel. Your father left for the Odessa front before you were born. You are my son’.

The violent and brutal occurrences throughout are made even more shocking by the sometimes deceptively simple prose which Markovits uses. When Josef as a young boy sees a pregnant woman killed and her husband tortured, the author states: ‘it was impossible to see; it was impossible not to see, where the legs met, the split flesh where blood spurted through crusted blood’. The couple have a young girl named Mila with them, whom they instruct to ‘go to Zalman Stern’, an old friend of theirs, to be looked after.

When Mila finds the family, four-year-old Atara, Zalman’s eldest daughter, befriends her. The girls are just a year apart in age and, despite not being related, they form a sisterly bond with one another. Both Mila and Atara, segregated in a world in which books are forbidden, struggle against aspects of their faith which both taunts and hurts them. Atara becomes rebellious, going against what she knows she should be doing.

The characters merge and drift apart in interesting ways. Josef, ‘the boy with the wood-nettle eyes’, is taken from Florina by Zalman Stern, and is swiftly restored to the status of a practicing Jew again. He is consequently sent to a ‘holy community’ in the United States. Throughout, the reader feels much sympathy for the majority of the characters but Zalman Stern, who believes that ‘it was essential for children to fear their father so they would grow into God-fearing Jews’, is not a likeable individual in any way. He is cruel to his family, preferring to uphold Jewish laws and punish even those who innocently and naïvely go against them.

Markovits has used a third person omniscient perspective throughout, which allows her to follow more than one character at any time. The narrative style has been very well constructed, and the use of the narrative voice itself is certainly one of the novel’s strengths. Her writing is often descriptive – leaves are ‘flame shaped and autumn red’ and the eyes of the religious icons are described as ‘furry bees’. The balance of long and short sentences has been well thought out, and Markovits is able to build up strong passages of tension and unease whilst using this technique. This is particularly true with regard to the first few pages in the novel, in which the following passage occurs: ‘Soldiers. A tug on Zalman’s sleeve. Two more buttons snapped. A muzzle lifted his hat.

The history of the period, from the Holocaust up until the present day, has been woven into I Am Forbidden, which gives the novel a wider sense of place and allows the story to be historically grounded throughout. Moral questions regarding Judaism have also been included throughout the text. ‘Must a Jew repent for smothering a crying infant if it was done to protect other lives?’ is perhaps the most harrowing.

I Am Forbidden is an incredibly sad and poignant novel in which death and destruction find prominence. The story is incredibly engrossing and absorbing, and as violent as it is moving. The storyline itself an unpredictable one, filled with twists and turns at every juncture, rendering it impossible to guess in which direction it will lead the reader. I Am Forbidden provides a real insight into Judaism and secular society, and the characters and storyline merge to create an unforgettable novel.

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One From the Archive: ‘All the Way’ by Marie Darrieussecq **

‘All the Way’ by Marie Darrieussecq

The blurb of French author Marie Darrieussecq’s All the Way promises that it ‘offers an extraordinary insight into the language and obsessions of adolescence’.  It goes on to say that the author ‘offers fearless observations on sex, desire, adolescence and the moment when childhood drops away’.  Darrieussecq is the author of various books, including Pig Tales, which was published in thirty four countries.  This volume, which was first published in France in 2011, has been translated by Penny Hueston.

All the Way introduces us to a teenage girl named Solange, who is at once ‘intrigued, amazed and annoyed by the transformation of her body’, and longs to be just like everyone else around her, all of whom profess that they have already ‘done it’.  To go with this general theme, the novel has been split into three parts – ‘Getting It’, ‘Doing It’, and ‘Doing It Again’.

Solange lives in the town of Clèves – ‘where we don’t have the sea but we have a pretty lake’ with her parents.  When her mother is not working in a shop, she is ‘always in bed’, and her pilot father frankly embarrasses her.  Indeed, she believes that one of the reasons as to why she is targeted at school is because of ‘her father’s extroversion’, which seems to solely consist of his becoming naked in rather a shady incident.  A strong sense of foreboding is present throughout; nothing is quite as it should be, particularly with regard to the way in which Solange spends so much time with the family’s next-door neighbour, Monsieur Bihotz.

Whilst we learn a lot about Solange, she still feels quite distant as a protagonist, and her obsession about sexual practices and the way in which she succumbs to peer pressure feels rather overdone.  Her parents, and the other characters who come into the novel here and there, feel rather flat too.  It is as though more importance has been placed onto the arc of events in the plot, rather than those imagined beings who cause such things to happen.

The novel’s structure is relatively contemporary.  There are no chapters as such; instead, small, separate segments of writing, many of which are entirely separate from those which come before and after, make up each part.  Some of these are odd little fragments of memory; some occur in the past, and some in the present.  The story is told in a mixture of first and third person perspectives, which alters from one section to the next, and does take a while to get into.

All the Way is well written, and whilst Darrieussecq’s descriptions are nice, the whole does tend to be rather too blunt in places.  Solange’s naivety is portrayed well – for example, the times in which she looks up words which she does not understand in the dictionary – but it is lost all too quickly and abruptly.  Whilst the novel provides an interesting window into adolescence, it does sadly feel a little too predictable at times.


One From the Archive: ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ by Catherynne M. Valente ****

First published in June 2012.

Catherynne M. Valente is rather a prolific author of children’s fantasy and science fiction novels and will be publishing the sequel to this novel – The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There – in 2013. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was the winner of the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Literature in 2011.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making tells the story of September, a twelve-year-old girl from Omaha, Nebraska. She is rather a lonely child with her father away fighting in an unnamed war, her mother busy at work dealing with ‘stubborn airplane engines’, and no real friends to speak of. September is sent on a quest by a kindly witch in order to rescue a Spoon from the clutches of the Marquess of Fairyland – a character described as ‘very splendid and very frightening’ – who lives in its capital, Pandemonium. Whilst this is rather a strange motive for such an adventure, it is one which September faces gallantly.

Valente has created a cast of her own which is peopled by personified natural phenomenons – the Green Wind, for example, takes September to the Perverse and Perilous Sea which shares a border with Fairyland. The novel also contains such creatures as ‘hamadryads’, ‘spriggans’, witches and wairwulves – creatures who are wolves for the majority of the month and turn into humans upon the full moon. There is also a golem made entirely of soap shavings, Will-o’-the-wisps, hobgoblins and enormous mice who stand taller than fully grown adults.

The magical elements are apparent from the outset and the fairytale-esque phrase ‘Once upon a time’ at the beginning of the novel sets the tone for the entire story. As well as magical, the novel is often quite amusing. The Green Wind tells September that ‘Fairyland is a very Scientifick place. We subscribe to all the best journals’. He also lets the protagonist know that he is taking her away from her home because ‘Omaha is no place for anybody’.

A third person perspective has been used throughout which includes many of September’s thoughts in italics. The narrative often speaks directly to the reader, which really involves us in September’s story. The illustrations throughout are just lovely and, along with the thought which has gone into the elaborate titles and subtitles of each chapter – ‘Exeunt on a Leopard’, ‘The Closet Between Worlds’, ‘The Great Velocipede Migration’ and ‘Autumn is the Kingdom Where Everything Changes’, for example – really add to the magical feel of the story. Each chapter also has rather a long subheading reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which begins ‘In which…’. Aspects of the storyline also echo those of The Wizard of Oz. Parallels can be drawn between the poppy field in which Dorothy falls asleep and the ‘meadow full of tiny red flowers’ which September wakes up in. There are also similarities with the quest, where the heroine is sent, along with her magical companions, to the capital city of a magical land to meet its feared and revered leader.

Valente’s descriptions are sublime and fit incredibly well with the story. Her writing is rather original and this can be seen particularly in the way in which she writes about her heroine – ‘Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly’ – and other characters such as the Green Wind, who is dressed throughout ‘in a green smoking jacket’ and jodhpurs. The prose throughout is charming and Valente is clearly very skilled in her writing. A good example of her constant inventiveness can be seen when she states the following: ‘All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one.’

Whilst The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is essentially aimed at the young adult market, it is one, like the tradition of novels such as Harry Potter, which appeals to adults just as much. The speech of the majority of the characters is grown-up in its style and the vocabulary which Valente has woven in throughout the novel allows it to appeal to a more advanced audience.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a wonderfully inventive tale and such an adventure. It is apparent from the outset that Valente has such love for her characters and the world which she has created, and the story is a perfect read for lovers of nostalgia and fans of fantasy novels of all ages.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Courilof Affair’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

‘The Courilof Affair’ by Irene Nemirovksy (Vintage)

I absolutely love Nemirovsky’s work, and will happily read any of her novels or novellas.  In fact, I will happily read anything which she turned her talented hand to.  Throughout The Courilof Affair, her writing is beautiful and its flow is marvellous, even in translation.  Sandra Smith, who was responsible for rendering the novel into English, has done a wonderful job.

The premise of The Courilof Affair would have attracted me even if I had not read any of Nemirovsky’s other work.  It begins in 1903, and deals with the son of Russian revolutionaries, who is given the responsibility of ‘liquidating Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the notoriously brutal and cold-blooded Russian Minister of Education…  Insinuating himself into Courilof’s household by becoming his physician, Leon M takes up residence at Courilof’s summer house in the Iles and awaits instructions.  But over the course of his story he is made privy to the inner world of the man he must kill – his failing health, his troubled domestic situation and, most importantly, the tyrannical grip that the Czar himself holds over all his ministers, forcing them to obey him or suffer the most deadly punishments’.

The Courilof Affair is protagonist Leon M’s autobiography of sorts, and it is told in retrospect from his own perspective.  His narrative voice flows well, and feels ultimately believable.  Nemirovsky gets across the fact that he is an anguished soul from the very beginning.  One of Nemirovsky’s strongest skills, as far as I am concerned, is the way in which she captures scenes and characters.  With one sweep of her pen, she creates the most vivid of images, and builds up beautiful and striking views before the very eyes.

The Courilof Affair is a novel about terrorism and its effects.  It has been based upon real-life events which have been fictionalised.  It is certainly well imagined in this respect, and has a definite ghostly echo of the awful, repressive situations which occurred in Russia both at the time in which the novel was written, and earlier.  As Nemirovsky does so marvellously in all of her books, she challenges perceptions throughout.  Her use of dual identity works well, and the book is rendered in an eminently human manner.  The story is a wise one, and it is entirely relevant to the world in which we live.

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