28/10/2004

Island Magic (by Elizabeth Goudge)

Elizabeth Goudge's writing is always relaxed, perhaps a bit long-winded in places, character-driven in a positive way, and sometimes with a touch of magic. I don't expect to read her books in a hurry since there's usually a fair bit of description, which manages to add to the story rather than being boring.

'Island Magic' is a lovely book. Gentle and insightful writing takes us to the heart of a family living in the Channel Islands in the late 1880s. Rachelle, the mother, is the driving force behind the family, while her husband André struggles to keep going with a failing farm, trying hard to suppress his creative side. They have five living children, each of whom has a distinct character so well developed that I found them quite recognisable. There's the intellectual bookworm Michelle, the caring motherly Peronelle, the scared, anxious Jacqueline. These are the teenagers in the family who love each other dearly, and yet drive each other wild.

Then there's Colin, eight years old and yearning for independence. The book opens with Colin out at sea with three rather disreputable sailors, knowing his parents would not allow him to be with them, yet needing the escape from his mainly female household. Colin is his mother's favourite and knows how to manipulate her lovingly; he's an accomplished liar, having learned that life is most peaceful when he pretends that he has been following innocent pursuits, and hides many of his activities from her.

The youngest in the family is Charlotte. At five years old she is perhaps the least believable of the children; she's contented, loving, even religiously pious. She is fond of everyone, even her bad-tempered and arrogant grandfather, and when she isn't spending time with other children she imagines playmates of her own. As the baby she is somewhat spoiled by her sisters, yet her character seems to thrive on affection and attention, and she causes no trouble to anybody.

The family is almost bankrupt and André in despair. He thinks the only answer is to go and live with his father, but Rachelle cannot bear that idea; so they agree to six more months to see if they can survive. Rachelle is certain something will turn up - and indeed it does, in the form of a stranger rescued from a shipwreck who comes to live in their stable to recuperate, and gradually becomes a vital part of the family.

There's obviously some secret about this stranger; we learn that he is no stranger to the Channel Islands, although he pretends to be. He has travelled widely and had many thrilling experiences, yet he suffers from a kind of depression. He does not want any relationship ties, yet he finds himself strangely drawn to the whole family, determined to help each one in some way, seeing with an outsider's eye what the parents do not necessarily notice.

So it's a character-driven novel, descriptive, insightful and often moving. In about a year of the family's life there are inevitable problems, both major and minor, a serious illness, and changing perspectives for all. Definitely recommended, although unfortunately it's now out of print, and tends to be fairly pricey secondhand.

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