I’m on a new Rumer Godden kick. Or at least, I’m reading those of her books that I’ve had sitting on the shelf for a while and thinking of ordering up another one or two. So far neither of the two I’ve read has been quite as good as In This House of Brede; but that’s the problem in general with reading an author’s most famous work first. Generally it’s her best stuff and everything else is just a little bit less. Nonetheless, they’ve been good reads.
An Episode of Sparrows is a beautiful little tale set in post WWII London. It’s a sort of The Secret Garden meets Big Night. The novel centers around Lovejoy Mason and Tip Malone who steal dirt in order to plant a small garden in the rubble of a bombed-out Catholic church. They are perhaps an even more unlikely pair of gardeners than Mary Lennox and Colin Craven and much more likeable. (I was never able to like Mary quite as much as I liked Sarah Crewe.)
And then there’s George Crombie, or “Vincent,” the chef and sole proprietor of a restaurant that is far too fancy for the neighborhood. He’s a victim of his own pretensions and exceedingly high standards. Lovejoy has been abandoned by her singer mother and lives with Vincent and his wife, the garrulous Mrs. Crombie.
Lovejoy and Tip (and, to a lesser degree perhaps, Vincent) are the sparrows of the novel’s title. Overlooked by many, until they are caught stealing the dirt, still their suffering is seen and noticed by at least one witness, Miss Olivia Chesney.
Olivia and her sister Angela are spinsters. Angela is the head of the Garden Committee and responsible for prosecuting the children when they are caught stealing dirt. She is one of those women who is always busy with good works. When Lovejoy’s mother disappears Angela arranges for her to be taken in by the Anglican St. Botolph’s Home of Compassion. And yet Angela is curiously lacking in true compassion. The sensitive Olivia is shy and retiring and never joins Angela in her charity work and yet she is the one who truly sees the sparrows and feels compassion.
My favorite scenes were those in which Lovejoy, who has been raised with no religion, ventures into the Catholic church. I love her interactions with the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Godden manages to capture the simultaneous strangeness and homeyness of the Catholic church perfectly through the eyes of a child.
The Greengage Summer is the story of an English family who travel to France for a summer. Upon arriving, the mother of the family falls ill and is hospitalized leaves her five children in the care of an unknown Englishman who is staying at the hotel.
The story is told from the point of view of the second daughter, thirteen year old Cecil, and is a sort of coming of age tale, focusing on the loss of innocence. The children are first enchanted by Eliot, the Englishman who has made himself responsible for them; but soon it becomes clear that Eliot is not quite who he seems to be. They learn that growing up does not mean leaving one’s character flaws behind.
I liked the way the story unfolds, you know almost from the beginning that something terrible is going to happen because Cecil jumbles her narrative and sprinkles all sorts of references to the event and its aftermath. When you finally arrive at the climax, the story just ends. I wanted to turn back to the beginning and start reading again so I could piece together from the hints what happens to them after it’s over.
There’s one more Godden book to read, The Dark Horse, but I’m having trouble getting into it. I read the first chapter or two and then put it down. It’s set in India and centers around horse racing and neither the place nor the subject matter really draws me. Still, I’m sure once I push past the beginning it will be as good a read as the others.
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