“The wind blew and blew. The wind was always blowing on this island, from one direction or another. A sanctuary for someone with work to do, a wild garden for someone growing up, but otherwise just days on top of days, and passing time.”
Once you get used to the idea that this is a series of little stories about what happens in the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter on a small island over the course of the summer you get the rhythm of this book.
It reminds you of your own experience of childhood when the garden became a world in itself and you spent day after day out there in the sunshine exploring ant kingdoms and setting up little worlds of your own.
The same is here with Sophia and her grandmother living an intense relationship both in terms of the daily exposure to each other as well as the limitations of space due to the small island they live on.
They start to create their own worlds on the island with the trees, flowers and sea all having a significance for them.
“No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones. Sometimes they are as thing as needles, extremely fine and delicate, and have to be handled with great care. Sometimes they are large, heavy thighbones, or a cage of ribs buried in the sand like the timbers of a shipwreck. Bones come in a thousand shapes and everyone of them has its own structure.
Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest.”
Uniting the collection of stories about what happens during the summer, with new neighbours, a storm and the father’s determination to grow plants on the island, there are a few unifying themes.
Firstly, the relationship between Grandmother and Sophia is key with the elder not only understanding the younger and as a result carefully guiding her through what could be difficult moments of temper and stroppiness but there is also a dimension of immaturity to the old woman as well. Living with the six year-old, who seems to be her main source of company, keeps her young and encourages her to act out the dreams of childhood.
Second, the island with the summer house which is so well described it is the most important character in the book. The ravine where they go to hide and Grandmother smokes down to the magic forest and the mossy turf blown away in the storm. It is the island that acts as a backdrop to the story along with the house. They are special because they make this story so special setting the adventures in suburban back garden would lose the intensity that comes from being on a small island surrounded by the sea.
Finally, the time of year is important because the arrival of summer starts the book and the approach of its end causes the house to be shut up and for the adventures on the island to end. The weather is predictable enough to allow them to stay on the island but still able to throw up surprises with a fantastic storm and days of drought.
This is one of those books that I suspect is going to burrow deep into the sub conscious and inspire summer holidays and dreams for many years to come.
There is always something slightly difficult about reading a book that has been described as a ‘masterpiece’. You start looking for the signs of brilliance from the start and when they don’t instantly fail to appear you start to worry.
In some ways what takes some time is to get into the rhythm of this book. Just like a long slow summer holiday this is a collection of experiences enjoyed by the two main characters the Grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia.
They live together along with Sophia’s father, who remains in the background, on an island that is so small they know every inch of its rocky and mossy landscape. They create their own worlds, myths and traditions as the summer unfolds…