Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Rumer Godden’s classic autobiographical novel brilliantly captures a heady, transformative childhood summer. 

Five English children – Joss, the eldest, then Cecil (who narrates the story), Hester, Willmouse and Vicky – are taken to France by their mother, in the hope that they will learn something about the sacrifices made on the battlefield of war. En route, the mother is bitten by a horse-fly, and by the time they reach the hotel Les Oeillets, where they are to stay, she is seriously ill. Mother soon falls into the background and the children must learn to get on by themselves.

The five children soon make acquaintance with some of the curious and mysterious people of the hotel, most notably the hotel’s owner, Madame Zizi, and her English lover, Elliot. It somehow transpires that Elliot is given charge of the children and they become fascinated with him, often trying to make sense of his mercurial personality. Things become emotionally charged when it appears that Elliot is becoming enamoured of Joss, who at sixteen is blooming into womanhood. Just as the pieces of the story finally seem to be coming together, it’s discovered that Elliot is not all what he seems and is wanted by the police.

First published in 1958, The Greengage Summer is based on real events from Rumer Godden’s life. It’s primarily a coming-of-age story and has a somewhat similar tone to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Godden infuses her story with a dreamy, hazy, nostalgic feel, describing a group of young to adolescent children in a sumptuous, exotic no man’s land. Authority has been suspended, a cast of unreliable hotel characters have filled the gap, and the children must try to figure out what rules should apply.

A slow, dreamy read that authentically captures a children’s lost summer.

The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Published by Pan. ISBN: 9781447211013 RRP:$19.99

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