Archive for the ‘Rumer Godden’ Category

A House with Four Rooms by Rumer Godden ~ 1989. This edition: William Morrow, 1989. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-688-08629-2. 319 pages.

My rating: 7/10

A must-read for any Rumer Godden fan, though in my opinion not nearly as gripping as her first memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep.

Four Rooms starts with Godden’s permanent return to England, and follows her through her ongoing struggles as a divorced mother of two young children, working to support them with her pen.

Lots of name-dropping ensues as Rumer Godden’s books increasingly grow in popularity and she starts to move in exalted literary and film-making circles; while not terribly offensive this occasionally feels a bit gratuitous. But it was the reality of her life; she did truly gain the high stature her celebrity friends and compatriots suggest, and those circles became her natural habitat, so to pretend she was still a simple soul in a country cottage would be misleading.

She describes the long courtship by her second husband, and her emotional difficulties committing to a second marital experience after the abysmal disaster of her first tragic marriage. The second union had its ups and downs but Godden’s description of James’ final years and death is poignantly sorrowful, if rather briefly referred to. I certainly felt that her love and grief were sincere.

Fascinating glimpses into the backgrounds of many of the novels from The River onwards, plus details of Godden’s growing stature as a children’s writer and advocate for literacy which was a major interest in her later years. She also refers to her conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, and her sincere admiration for the Anglican and Catholic nuns, brothers and priests she met throughout her life, and those she came to know intimately during her research into her masterwork, In This House of Brede.

All in all an enlightening and extremely readable memoir by a gifted and memorable writer. And I do believe she was often her own harshest critic, seeing her work with true clarity, though she occasionally bridled at negative comments from reviewers on the “slightness” of some of her books.

Rumer Godden’s life spanned nearly the whole 20th Century. Born in 1907, she died at the age of 90 in 1998, actively writing almost until the very end. Her last novel, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva, was published in 1997, less than a year before her death. A fascinating and gallant woman, who weathered many personal storms, some of her own creation.

Rumer Godden’s much-quoted words sum up her philosophy in the mature years of her long and creative life:

There is an Indian proverb or axiom that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but, unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.

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The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden ~ 1975. This edition: Viking, 1976. Hardcover. 243 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Two English half-sisters are sent from boarding school in England to join their divorced U.N.-diplomat father in India.

15-year-old Una and younger sister Halcyon (Hal) are respectively gifted in mathematical ability and singing; Una in particular worries that their new Eurasian governess-teacher will not be able to teach to the standard required to qualify her for entrance to Oxford. This proves to be the case; Miss Alix Lamont turns out to have other qualities which the girls’ father, Sir Edward Gwithiam, has chosen her for; namely her beauty and personal charms. He is openly infatuated with Alix, and the girls’ presence is meant to give a plausible reason for her inclusion in his household.

Una and Alix find themselves in the position of jockeying for position in Sir Edward’s affections; Alix is strongly entrenched, and Sir Edward intends to marry her. Una, smarting from her father’s rejection (she was always his confidante, but he has distanced himself from both of his daughters since Alix gained his interest), becomes involved with Ravi, a young Indian gardener on attached to the U.N. estate, who is actually a well-born Brahmin student in hiding for his part in a violent political protest. Meanwhile, Hal has become infatuated with the son of a deposed Rajah, Vikram, who is in turn in love with Alix. This seething mass of emotional undercurrents leads to Una’s disastrous flight with Ravi and the laying bare and reworking of all of the relationships thus involved.

Quite a well-done story; generally plausible and sympathetically told. All characters are well-developed and complex, and are treated very fairly by their author in that we see the multiple facets of their personalities and fully understand their motivations. The ending is quite realistic, though not perhaps what one could call “happy”; the various characters move out of our vision with these particular issues resolved but many more looming. All in all I thought it was one of Godden’s better coming-of-age novels; I enjoyed it more than I initially thought I would from the reviews I had read.

Suitable for young adult to adult. Frank but not explicit sexual content including extramarital relationships and the sexual involvement between a schoolgirl and an older man; pregnancy and abortion are discussed though mostly by implication. Rumer Godden in this novel has kept abreast of the times; she was 69 when this novel was published and though a bit dated here and there the tone is generally contemporary.

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Mooltiki and Other Stories and Poems of India by Rumer Godden ~ 1957.    This edition: Macmillan & Co., 1957. Hardcover. 136 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Rather uneven collection of fair to excellent stories and mostly merely fair poems.

A slender volume of poems and short stories set in India.

BENGAL

  • Bengal River a poem
Nothing can mollify the sky,
the river knows
only its weight and solitude, and heat, sun-tempered cold,
and emptiness and birds; a boat; trees; fine white sand,
and deltas of cool mud; porpoises; crocodiles;
and rafts of floating hyacinth; pools and water-whirls
and, nurtured in blue mussel shells, the sunset river pearls.
                                                                                                            … … …
  • Possession

The rice field lay farthest from the village, nearest the road. On all sides the plain unrolled in the sun with a pattern of white clouds, white pampas grass in autumn and white paddy birds, and glimpses of sky-reflecting water from the jheels or shallow pools. The sky met the horizon evenly all the way round in the flatness of the plain, an immense weight of sky above the little field, but the old peasant Dhandu did not look at the sky, he looked at his field; he did not know that it was little; to him it was the whole world. He would take his small son Narayan by the wrist and walk with him and say, ‘This field belonged to my grandfather and your great-grandfather; to my father and your grandfather; it is mine, it will be yours.’

But life-plans may go horribly awry; Dhandu’s does not follow its anticipated path; in an ironic ending, which I somehow found reminiscent of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, the field stays with Dhandu but is forever lost to his son.

  • Sister Malone and the Obstinate Man

Sister Malone is a nun in charge of a charity hospital in Calcutta; she is unshaken by the horrible sufferings all around her and does great good with her nursing abilities, but her continual effort to share her religious faith with those she heals goes unheeded. One day Sister Malone meets a man who has truly put all of his trust in God, but she cannot reconcile this with her own conception of what faith should be.

  • The Oyster

Gopal, a Bhramini Hindu student who has travelled abroad to study in England, visits Paris with a friend and is forced to examine the role of compromise in the formation of his own developing character.

HIMALAYAN NOMADS

  • The Goat PeoplePastoral Poems

Nine poems inspired by the nomadic peoples of the Himalayas of Northern India.

The tribes pass all through the spring, pitching their camp at night and lighting their fires under a boulder, a fir tree, or by an ice stream; moving on again at dawn, driving with a peculiar trembling whistle that is their own, something between a hawk’s cry and a flute, harsh, sweet and wild…

… I have tried to make these poems like the people, rough and rhythmical … without symbolism or image, simple and pastoral.

The Meadow

The Caravan

Flowers for the Animals 

The Elders

The Goat Women

The Animals

The Goat Children

The Goat Baby

Moving Downwards

  • Red Doe

A vignette of a young nomad riding up the mountain to fetch his unseen new wife. Sensitive and poignant.

  • The Little Black Ram

An orphan boy, Jassoof,

… a young thief, a bully, noisy, quarrelsome and turbulent, against everyone with everyone against him…

finds his place in the world through his care of a black ram lamb.

KASHMIR

  • The Wild Duck

Another vignette piece, about a young Kashmiri hunter, Khaliq, who, longing for winter to be over, thinks of his time the previous year among the high  mountains hunting ibex.

  • Two Sonnets

Just that; two sonnets. A regretful ode to winter; a joyful ode to spring.

Kashmiri Winter

Spring Sonnet

JUNGLE

  • Mooltiki

This first-person short story (24 pages)  is the jewel of this slight collection. Rumer Godden tells of her experiences in her sister and brother-in-law’s winter camp on the borders of Bhutan. Mooltiki, a small, opinionated elephant, is the “maid-of-all-work” of the camp, fetching firewood and providing transport for odd jobs, such as Rumer Godden’s small jungle explorations. Godden writes an amusing and appreciative ode to Mooltiki and her elephant kin, as well as an extremely evocative description of what if feels like to be involved as an observor in several “blinds” for problem tiger kills.

*****

Mooltiki is an interesting though quite slight collection of fictional short stories (except for the autobiographical title piece, decidedly the best part of the collection) and personal poems; after reading it through several times I must confess that my conclusion is that Godden was a much stronger writer of prose than of poetry!

Nicely done overall, with Godden’s trademark of strong, eloquent characterizations and descriptions of place. Definitely a work any Rumer Godden collector will want to have on the shelf; probably worth a purchase for Mooltiki alone, if it can be found for a reasonable sum.

The biggest fault is the shortness of the book; about an hour`s worth of reading, even if taking one`s time and savouring the beautifully nuanced style of most of the pieces. I thought the poems were the weakest point; some of the stories were excellent (Mooltiki, Red Doe, The Little Black Ram, and possibly Possession, stood out for me), while the others are merely good.

Recommended, with those reservations.

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A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep by Rumer Godden ~ 1987. This edition: Beech Tree Books (William Morrow), 1987. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-688-07421-9. 243 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A must-read for anyone with an acquaintance with  Rumer Godden’s body of work, and a fascinating stand-alone autobiography that will send the reader unfamiliar with her titles on a search to find out more. The first half of her two-volume autobiography, it covers the years 1907 to 1946; Rumer’s childhood in India and her various travels up until her ultimate return to England in 1946.

There is so much packed into this book, as there was in Godden’s life, that I will not attempt to give a detailed overview, merely a blanket recommendation – very good reading.

Rumer Godden was a complex personality; her novels and stories are often drawn directly from her own life and experiences. She could not have been an easy woman to be around, being one of the “driven” writers; she fully acknowledges this in this memoir; in many ways it feels somewhat like an apology to her family and her friends.

The latter part of the book, concerning Godden’s time living at Dove House in the Kashmir hills, was the basis for the novel Kingfishers Catch Fire. The reality was even more intense than the fictional account that it inspired; Godden delves deep into her motivation for that socially astounding retreat from the “proper” Anglo-Indian community, and she comments as well on the effects of that self-imposed isolation on her two young children. Jane and Paula were at that time, I believe, seven and five years old, and it would be fascinating to hear their own childhood memories of their wandering life with their mother. I am wondering if either of them has written about their lives in their turn. Vaguely I am thinking that there is a daughter’s memories of Rumer Godden out there somewhere.

This memoir reads like a novel, only it is so much better than anything fictional Godden wrote, because it is a personal examination of experiences, thoughts and emotions based on the writer’s “truth” (always stranger and richer than fiction), and it therefore shines a radiant light on both the personal life of this extremely talented and passionate writer, as well as showing the framework of her subsequent stories. Keep in mind that this is one person’s version of events, as Godden herself comments in the dedication:

For Jane and Paula.

This book is my life as a young writer; to me and my kind life itself is a story and we have to tell it in stories – that is the way it falls. I have told the truth and nothing but the truth, yet not the whole truth, because that would be impossible.

Most highly recommended.

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Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden ~ 1953. This edition: Reprint Society, 1955. Hardcover. 280 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

*****

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
 
 

These lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins head the prologue of this disturbing and haunting story.

This vintage Godden novel was new to me. I recently read the first volume of Godden’s autobiography, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, and was intrigued by the account of Godden’s three years in retreat in the Kashmir hill country, initially with only her two young daughters and later joined by several other women and children. Kingfishers Catch Fire was inspired by this time, and though the author states that this novel is not autobiographical, many of the incidents are those that Godden herself experienced, living in the actual house Dilkusha, in the Kashmir hills, operating a herb farm and employing the local people in the enterprise.

In one of those satisfying occurrences of bookish serendipity, soon after I expressed a desire to find this novel, it came to me all by itself, and in the form I most enjoy – an older hardcover, in its original dust jacket. I had casually ducked into the Salvation Army store to give the book section a quick scan, and had cherry-picked a Rohinton Mistry paperpack (Tales from Firozsha Baag) out from among the mix of ex-bestsellers and inspirational religious books that fill the racks in this particular location. I was turning away to leave when something turquoise-blue and white caught my eye – a promising “older book” dust jacket peeking out from behind the fat paperbacks.  My pulse quickened; after many years of second-hand book searching one seems to develop a sixth sense of when a find is at hand, and this time I was more than right – not only a good book, but  the particular book recently on my mind. I gently pulled it out from the shelf, and there it was, in its gorgeous World Books (Reprint Society) zodiac-themed jacket. About as perfect as it gets!

The story is typical Rumer Godden fare. An Englishwoman living in India (Sophie Barrington-Ward, long separated from her husband and recently widowed) gets herself into an impossible situation, behaves badly, finds redemption and emerges changed for the better; all of the action witnessed and brought into critical focus through the eyes of a child, in this case the Sophie’s young daughter, 8-year-old Teresa. Like a stone thrown into still water, the ripples of each action spread far and touch things on all sides, with unintended and often tragic consequences.

When news of her husband’s death reaches her, Sophie and her two young children are living on a houseboat on the lake at Rawalpindi in the Kashmir region of what would be present-day Pakistan. At first she is conventionally sad but not particularly upset; after all, she has a comfortable private income and her widow’s pension will be coming now as well. She has made a rather unique life for herself where she is, rejecting the British-European social life of the region and instead fraternizing almost exclusively with the locals – the picturesque boatmen, vendors and shopkeepers –  who see in Sophie a well-off patroness who spends generously and lives exclusively to please herself.

Sophie soon finds out that her husband has left huge debts; she manages to settle these but is left impoverished. Rather than returning to England in what she sees as defeat, Sophie ekes out an existence teaching “English to Hindu and Mohammedan ladies and Urdu to English people”.  As the bitter winter goes on, Sophie falls ill and is taken in by the local Mission hospital. When she recovers, she decides to simplify her life even further, to “live local” as a peasant (better a “peasant” than a “poor white”, she tells herself), and moves into a tiny house farther up the mountain.

Sophie’s idea of living like a peasant clashes with the reality of the local population, who are truly poor. Her continual blunders lead to a tragic incident that brings her “simple life” dream crashing down. Her daughter Teresa is a hapless witness to Sophie’s decline into chaos, and is a key player in the climactic ending of the story.

Sophie does wake up from her dream; she does confront her weaknesses; she does at least begin to change, and by the end of the story we have come to view her with a certain admiration if not with whole-hearted affection. Sophie’s initial emotional neglect of Teresa and her younger brother Thomas (“Moo”) is a key factor in making her such an unlikeable protagonist; she is an egotistical reverse-snob who makes snap judgments based on what she’d wish people’s personalities to be, and she sticks firmly to those opinions, even while being repeatedly shown how wrong they are. Sophie’s progression from that person to someone much more unsure of herself is the real drama of the novel.

For a while near the end of the story I thought I was going to be disappointed in my author – it was all coming out a bit too pat – a white knight who has been lurking in the background the whole book reappears to “rescue” Sophie just as she is sorting things out for herself, and Sophie falls into his arms with relief, but Godden ultimately allows Sophie (and Teresa) to walk out of the book with head held high.

An ultimately satisfying story, though not what I would consider a comfort read; the windows it opens into human foolishness and frailty strike close to home, and we are very aware throughout that there is no such thing as a universally happy ending; the most any of us can hope for is reaching some sort of compromise with life, if we are indeed one of the lucky ones.

As always, beautiful descriptions of place; Rumer Godden paints word pictures like no other. The children, Teresa and Moo, are very sympathetically handled; Godden is ever firmly on the side of innocence, though she never hesitates to let her innocents suffer in the interest of moving the narrative along.

This is, in my opinion, one of Godden’s better novels.

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The Battle of the Villa Fioritaby Rumer Godden ~ 1963. Viking Press. This edition: Book-of-the-Month Club hardcover, 1963. Library of Congress #: 63-14677. 312 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Middle-aged Englishwoman Fanny Clavering is by and large content with her life. Competent mistress of a stately country house and beloved garden, dependable wife to an affectionate husband, and devoted mother to three adolescent children, her greatest stress is in occasional mild conflicts with her managing mother-in-law and her rather bossy and condescending friends.

That is, until the day Fanny turns from the counter of the village shop to meet the admiring gaze of an unknown man. An acclaimed film director has just arrived with his entourage to shoot scenes for his latest work in the local countryside, and he falls in love, literally at first sight, with the gentle Fanny.

Fanny immediately recognizes an answering attraction in herself for the charismatic Rob. She means to do the right thing, to deny herself the romance that she has not encountered in her life until this point, but circumstances work against her and Fanny, torn between duty and growing passion, falls hard.

Fanny’s subsequent divorce and loss of custody of her children to her husband shocks her circle of friends and the staid village society; it also turns her children’s lives upside down. 16-year-old Philippa and 14-year-old Hugh are worldly enough to understand and somewhat accept what has happened, but 12-year-old Caddie is torn out of her self-involved dream-world to the reality that her future means no more dependable, alway-there mother, no more sanctuary of a country home, and no more beloved pony Topaz.

Philippa takes the changes in stride. After all, Rob Quillet is wealthy and influential, and as an aspiring model she may well benefit by his connections. She quite happily goes off to spend the summer in France with a school friend, leaving Caddie and Hugh trapped in the depressing London flat which is their new home. The country house is in limbo – soon to be sold with no Fanny to look after it. The pony Topaz is being boarded at a farm, with his ultimate fate in question, and the two languish the summer away.

The difficulties of trying to organize themselves for their fall terms at boarding school without their mother’s overseeing presence becomes the final straw. “Why must children of a divorce be made to put up with all of this? I won’t be a victim!” the suddenly aroused Caddie cries, and she comes up with an audacious plan. She and Hugh will go to Italy where Fanny and Rob have retreated to await their planned marriage, they will make Fanny “see reason” and they will bring her back home.

Needless to say, things do not turn out to be anything like so simple. In the battle for the possession and future of Fanny – and a brutal conflict it turns out to be – no one emerges a clear winner; all have lost something precious by the end. What is gained is elusive, and every one of our protagonists is left facing an uncertain future.

This is one of Rumer Godden’s “A”-list novels, and an accomplished piece of writing. The characters of Fanny and Caddie are in particular are beautifully portrayed; Godden’s strength is definitely in depicting girls and women working through challenges and coming to terms with their conflicting needs and desires.

The male characters are also handled well. Complex Rob Quillet is a contradictory yet single-minded personality; he is shockingly chauvinistic, to our 21st Century eyes, in his attitude towards women and children, but we also see his softer side, which ironically leads to his moral defeat. Hugh is seething with adolescent yearnings and moodiness, while the bemused Darrell Clavering gets credit for refusing to be the victim in his marital betrayal; his daughter Caddie comes by her surprising rebellion honestly.

Godden shows her usual genius at portraying place; she brings to full life the world of the English countryside as well as the more exotic Italian setting of the antique-filled villa and its lush gardens, set on the shores of Lake Garda.

Nicely done, Rumer Godden. This is why I keep a shelf full of your books.

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The Dark Horse by Rumer Godden ~ 1981.  This edition: Viking Press, 1982. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-25664-1. 203 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10.

Rumer Godden assembles a motley collection of stereotyped characters in this predictable little story, which was apparently based on a true incident of the 1930s Indian racing scene.

Other than the intriguing setting – English-style thoroughbred racing in India during the final days of the Raj –  I found absolutely no surprises here. I would give this slight novel permanent shelf room only to round out a collection of the author’s works, and – yes – I’ll say it yet again –  because even a poor Rumer Godden is worth keeping around for dipping into as a casual light read.

A race horse who has not fulfilled his earlier promise ends up in India with his has-been, sometimes-alcoholic, defrocked-jockey-cum-stable boy. A noble and understanding trainer discovers the reason why the horse won’t perform; after a few ups and downs the big race is run; no prizes are given for predicting the winner. Oh yes, there’s a convent of rather saintly nuns involved as well. (Rumer Godden does do nuns quite well – I’ll give her that.)

This comes out sounding a bit harsh and dismissive, but I’ll temper it. There’s some good stuff in here too, and Rumer Godden obviously drew on her own experiences in India because the setting and time is lovingly portrayed and convincing in its detail. The horses are nicely characterized; the author obviously spent some time paying close attention in the stables during her long and varied life.

Sadly, in this tale, the humans are all a bit too one-dimensional to be quite as believable as the horses. There is a lot of commentary on the social ostracization both of the wealthy “outsider” race-horse owner Leventine, and trainer John Quillan’s lovely Eurasian wife; the point that this is a bad thing is hammered home good and hard as Godden mounts this particular soapbox and lets herself go.

This is one of Rumer Godden’s decidedly minor works. A pleasant enough story, but not up to the standard of her best efforts, either in plot or character development. The whole thing felt a bit distracted, as if the author’s mind was only paying partial attention as she whipped this one off.

Which is how this reader felt as well as she whipped through the story hoping for more engagement than she could muster up. Rumer – I’ll give you a pass because you’ve done so well so many times in the past; I’ll allow a few bobbles in a lifetime of supporting yourself and your family by the written word; the pressure to produce something – anything! – to put food on the table must have been intense. The Dark Horse was written in the 45th year of the author’s long writing career, and is, I believe, the twenty-first adult novel Rumer Godden wrote, in a lifetime output of something like seventy adult, non-fiction and children’s books.

A plea from me – do not judge this author on this book! Like the “A” and “B” girls she references in the novel, her own work falls into decidedly separate categories, though the quality of the writing shines through even in the lowest of the “B”s.

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diddakoi rumer goddenThe Diddakoi by Rumer Godden ~ 1972. This edition: Macmillan, 2007.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-330-45330-1. 152 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Also published as Gypsy Girl in some editions. Do not confuse with another of Rumer Godden’s titles – Gypsy, Gypsy (1940) – which is a decidedly adult novel.

I have a vaguely uneasy relationship with this small story of the half-Irish, half-Romani (“gypsy girl”) Kizzy. The writing is of very high quality (no surprise there; Rumer Godden seemed incapable of turning out a poorly written phrase) but the plot – oh! – the plot is terribly contrived, especially when read with today’s sensibilities.

Young Kizzy, about 6 or 7 years old (she doesn’t know her birthday), lives with her great-great grandmother in a shabby, blocked-up gypsy wagon on a corner of Admiral Sir Archibald Twiss’s estate. Ancient Joe, who used to pull the wagon, grazes away his days and is Kizzy’s favourite companion, and all is generally well, if occasionally cold and hungry, in Kizzy’s little world.

The village do-gooder, Mrs. Cuthbert, twigs  to the fact that Kizzy is school-age and decidedly not at school; she cries “neglect!” and calls in the welfare officer and the official wheels are set in motion. Off our wee heroine goes to the village school, where she immediately falls afoul of a village’s worth of young “mean girls” (ringleader none other than Mrs. Cuthbert’s daughter Prue) who set upon her as a ready-made victim for their taunts.

Kizzy copes as best she can, but things get even worse. Her Gran dies, relatives are located and called in to deal with things, the wagon is burned in accordance with Gran’s wishes (an old Romani custom upon a death), and Joe is destined for the knacker’s yard, while an argument erupts over who will take Kizzy in. No one much wants her.

Kizzy takes control of her own destiny, and of Joe’s, escaping in the night and ending up on Admiral Twiss’s doorstep begging sanctuary for her horse. Of course, in the proper melodramatic tradition, she now falls ill and “cannot be moved” (apparently there are no ambulances available in 1970s England to transport a gravely ill child to hospital!) and must be cared for by the Admiral and his two devoted retainers.

To condense: Kizzy is re-homed with understanding Miss Brooke, though with more than a little resistance from Kizzy who was quite content in the Admiral’s bachelor establishment. The bullying at school escalates into a physical episode where Kizzy is injured, bringing the situation at long last to the official notice of the village adults who had been letting things work themselves out. The young bullies are allowed their chance at redemption; Kizzy learns to love dedicated Miss Brooke; a proper home is providentially provided; and all’s well that ends well.

For all of the predictability and sometimes glaring flaws in the plot-line, this story works out quite well. We develop an affection and admiration for this stubbornly individual child who refuses to be a victim of fate, even while being tossed and turned by events beyond her control. Though the ending is a little too good to be true, we feel that justice has been done at last; it serves to satisfy the moral craving for “good to be rewarded, wicked to be punished” which lies at the heart of all classic story tales.

A bit of a period piece. Especially dated, in my opinion, is the episode of the young girl being left in the intimate care of three men completely unrelated to her, with the full approval of the local doctor and the child welfare officer – does anyone else raise an eyebrow at this unlikely nowadays scenario? A sentimental read for teens and adults, and a generally interesting and satisfying children’s book.

Read-Aloud:  Works well as a read-aloud for all ages of children, though prepare for discussion of the bullying as it is quite graphic. There are also two deaths (Granny and Joe), plus a nearly tragic episode involving a house fire. The narrative jumps around somewhat, making it challenging to follow for very young children; I’m thinking 6 or 7 and up is best though littler ones could certainly listen in. This story moves along at a good pace and holds interest well both for the reader and the listeners.

Read-Alone: Good chapter book for fluent readers in the 7-ish to 11-ish year-old age range. Written with an advanced (adult) style and vocabulary; not at all an “easy reader” but a “real book” for a novice bibliovore to tackle.

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Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden ~ 1984. This edition: Viking Press, 1984. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-71196-9. 249 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

During most of her long career, Rumer Godden was widely viewed as a “popular” versus a “literary” writer, and it is her second-string novels such as Thursday’s Children that serve as evidence for that slightly scornful designation.

Her work did vary widely – as she herself commented – between those books she felt “demanded” to be written, and those that she searched out themes for and “chose” to write. This novel has a “Hmmm, what shall I write about?” feel to it. This said, I’ve read and re-read Thursday’s Children with enjoyment over the years because it is, after all, a Rumer Godden book, which means very competently written with flashes of wry humour, even in the most clichéd of her occasional “hack” novels.

Thursday’s Children is listed variously as a children’s book and as an adult novel. In truth it falls somewhere in between, and perhaps might best be categorized as belonging to the nebulous “young adult” genre, though I suspect its true audience is an older generation looking for a comfort read.

The plot is low-key melodrama, reminiscent of the recent popular film Billy Elliot: young boy stumbles into a dance class, realizes his destiny, faces numerous obstacles, wins over scornful/homophobic father/friends/enemies, and ultimately succeeds. The weakness of this scenario is its predictability; we know from the moment that young Doone fumbles through his first steps in the hallway of his sister’s dancing school that he is destined for the spotlight; his subsequent journey is only of interest in seeing how the author has handled the stock situation.

Side note: I was curious as to whether Billy Elliot or Thursday’s Children influenced each other; it appears that Godden was first out of the gate on this one. It was published in 1984, while the Billy Elliot film was released in 2000. The “boy stumbles into dance” situation is hardly exclusive, and – to be fair – many “real life” male dancers have had similar epiphanies.

Set in London, England in an undesignated time, (though clues point to late 1960s or early 1970s), Thursday’s Children is a double narrative of two young dancers, Doone and his older sister Crystal. Crystal is the much-doted upon daughter of the middle-class Penny family, the long-desired girl following four older brothers, while Doone is her younger brother – an unwelcome “afterthought” child – decidedly unplanned for and viewed with bemusement and a shade of resentment by Maud (“Ma”) Penny, whose family yearnings were more than fulfilled by Crystal’s appearance. Turns out that Ma was once a dancing chorus girl, and her maternal ambitions for Crystal are much grander – nothing but ballet lessons with the “Russian” Madame Tamara (who incidentally started out life as plain old English Minnie Price) will do. Doone,  dragged along by an unwilling Crystal to her Saturday morning dance classes, falls in love with the music and the movement, and away our story goes on its predictable little track.

Rumer Godden proceeds to work her charms with the material at hand. Doone is almost too good for belief, for not only is he a piano-playing prodigy and a natural dancer, he is a thoroughly sweet, sensitive, and likably nice child as well, despite his family’s dual neglect and  bullying. Doone, unsupported by his own family in his quest, is providentially blessed with a series of understanding artsy unrelated adults who instantly recognize his budding genius and smooth his path at every turn. I find that though his dogged “goodness” occasionally annoys, in general I quite like Doone; he shows occasional flashes of wit and bad temper which redeem him from total Little Loud Fauntleroyism.

Crystal, on the other hand, is a far from likeable child. Vain, fickle and scheming, she manipulates everyone in her little world, especially her besotted mother. Jealous of Doone’s recognition by their shared teachers, Crystal actively plots his thwarting, though her schemes are immediately recognized by those omnipotent adults as the two siblings rise through the ranks to their eventual placements in the exclusive Royal Ballet School.

Rumer Godden herself had a life-long involvement with dance, as a long-time dance student who returned to England to train as a teacher, eventually running her own dance school in Calcutta, so all of the technical talk rings true. Her scathing portrayal of the “typical dance mother” strikes close to home. Full disclosure: I am a dance mother myself, and I both laugh and cringe at Godden’s commentary on our many collective follies, though she has also given full credit to the difficulty of reconciling the many needs and expenses of the dancer with the needs and desires of the rest of the family – in the Penny family, as in so many real-life families, the dancer takes precedence.

The characters are allowed to develop in a reasonably natural way, and they surprise us occasionally by their responses, which keeps things interesting though in the main our predictions prove to be correct. Crystal is eventually allowed her chance at redemption; rather a Rumer Godden specialty – she does go to some lengths to allow her characters to show multiple personality facets. Many of the figures in the novel are inspired by actual personages in the British dance world; Yuri Koszorz is a direct take-off of Rudolf Nureyev, and the author has dedicated the book to the legendary Ninette de Valois.

This is a novel in which nothing much happens; the characters are important mostly to themselves and their adventures are the small adventures of ordinary people, but as a simple story competently told it can be counted as one of Rumer Godden’s more satisfying minor novels.

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Breakfast With the Nikolides by Rumer Godden ~ 1942. This edition: Pan, 2002. Softcover.  ISBN: 0-330-48781-7. Includes an Introduction by Yvonne Roberts, and the short story A Red Doe. 213 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

Though frequently listed as one of Rumer Godden’s “children’s” books, Breakfast with the Nikolides is a decidedly adult novel, chock full of dark and difficult themes: sexual desire, frustration, betrayal, revenge, reconciliation. Written early in her long career, the fifth of her twenty-four novels, Godden remarked that though the book was received without much comment, it came very close to her personal goal of “truthful writing”.

This is one of the “Indian” novels, started in 1940 as Rumer, her two young daughters and their governess sailed back to India – where Rumer had already spent the majority of her life – to escape the potential German invasion of England at the start of World War II.

Inspired by Rumer’s experiences living in the rural Bengali area of India as the daughter of British Colonialists, the vivid depictions of the setting and supporting characters were drawn from first-hand observation and feel clear and true.

This was one of the novels Rumer Godden felt was “vouchsafed” to her – she drew a definite distinction between “a book written when you are looking for something to write, searching for a theme, and one that seems to arise of itself, demanding to be written.” Breakfast with the Nikolides was a book that demanded to be written, and though it seems at times the author is still working on clarifying her “voice”, on the whole it is a successful experiment.

In the small East Bengal town of Amorra, the Government Agricultural Farm flourishes under the guidance of English agriculturalist Charles Pool. Though he has lived and worked intimately with the local community, he still remains, after eight years, something of a mystery man. The assumption is that he is a bachelor of celibate habits, for he lives an exemplary life of dedication to his goal of converting the local farmers to his new and productive ideas, and he is a respected lecturer at the progressive agricultural college which has now been established at the farm.

One day Charles goes down to the jetty on the river to meet the paddle-wheel steamer, where he meets a beautiful woman and two young girls –  his wife Louise and their daughters. Louise, 11-year-old Emily and 8-year-old Binnie have travelled the long and arduous way from war-torn France where they had been living until forced to flee the German occupation.

Emily and Binnie are enthralled with their new environment; Emily in particular hopes that she will never have to leave. When her father, against her mother’s wishes, gives her a spaniel puppy, Don, this action precipitates a far-reaching set of events ending both in tragedy and elemental change for all of the protagonists.

Lovely Louise is a woman with some serious personal issues. Long estranged from her husband for reasons which we gradually get some clues about, she also has a very difficult relationship with her eldest daughter, whom she seems to misread at every turn. Despite Louise’s insistence that their unification as a family is only temporary, Charles and Emily begin to gradually build up a fragile relationship of trust and affection, which Louise openly resents. She is not looking for a reconciliation; rather she has turned to Charles as a temporary refuge until the war is over; she makes it clear that as soon as she can she will return with her daughters to “civilization”.

The spaniel Don becomes sick; Louise suspects rabies, and, without explanation and in an attempt to shelter her daughters from an emotional trauma and a real physical danger, sends the girls for an unexpected morning visit to a neighbouring family. “Breakfast with the Nikolides” is an unexpected treat, and the girls happily go off, unsuspecting of the drama that will ensue upon their return. (One of my personal small disappointments in this novel is the too-brief introduction to the rather intriguing Nikolides children, Jason and Alexandra, whom we tantalizingly meet for only a few moments before the story whirls on its way without them.)

The young college veterinarian, Narayan Das, becomes involved in the saga, as does one of the agricultural students, Anil, passionate and poetical son of a wealthy and influential Brahmin family.

As events unfold, we see that the marriage of Charles and Louise has foundered because of deep faults on both sides; neither party is innocent here, and though we never get the full details, we learn enough to sympathize even more deeply with the children of this tempestuous union. Godden concentrates to a great degree on showing us the feelings of Emily, who perhaps could be described as the chief character; another one of Godden’s “waifs in the storm” who suffer as the adults in their lives behave badly. Our heroine Emily weathers this episode of the familial storm, and, though emotionally battered and bruised, finds a certain peace of her own by the story’s end, though there are many loose ends left unravelled, just as in “real life”.

The place-portrait of the Indian village is also one of this book’s strengths; Godden’s intimate familiarity with the time and place she writes about is apparent in her clean yet detailed descriptions. Very nicely done.

This is a novel for mature teens and adults, who would best be able to appreciate what the author has presented here; I suspect a younger reader would soon lose interest.

I had to double-check the publication date; this novel has a very contemporary feel to it. Well worth reading, and a good companion piece to Godden’s other adult novels, which show a range of styles as she continually experimented with and honed her considerable craft.

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