The Horn of Merlyn's (by Violet Needham)

My mother was a great fan of Violet Needham, a little-known writer who was popular in my mother’s childhood and teens; her books were published between 1939 and 1957, and were mostly historical or contemporary children’s fiction. My mother had managed to keep hold of some of her old editions, and to find a few more in charity shops; she was then delighted when the ‘Girls Gone By’ publishers reprinted, in full, a few of her favourites which she had not been able to get hold of previously.

Despite seeing them on her shelves as far back as I can remember, I never actually read any of Violet Needham’s books - I’m not entirely sure why as some of the titles were quite intriguing, and I do like books intended for older children from this era. However, when my mother died, I decided to bring these to Cyprus, as much as anything because she was so very keen on them. Wanting something fairly light, I decided to read ‘The Horn of Meryln’s’ recently; research told me it was a stand-alone novel.

The story is about eleven-year-old twins called Giles and Gillian, usually known as Jack and Gill. Orphaned young, they have lived with their rather strict grandmother for some years, repeatedly told that their father’s side of the family are unpleasant people who dislike them. But as the story opens, their grandmother has passed away, and so they are sent to stay with their aunt and uncle in an old country house called Merylns. It’s a lovely place, but not a happy one; their uncle Julian suffered a terrible tragedy, and their Aunt Elfrida is disabled, unable to move alone, after an accident.

Jack spends most of the year in school, so Gill is sent to Merlyns on her own, where she is very suspicious of her uncle, and quite lonely. She slowly settles in, and gets to know an eclectic mixture of local people, as well as learning about the history of the house, which includes a missing horn and a strange curse...

Violet Needham’s writing flows effortlessly; I found myself quickly drawn into the story, feeling for Gill as she explored her new environment nervously, expecting constant reproofs or worse, puzzled when she is shown kindness. I liked Julian and Elfrida too, and was intrigued by the adventure part of the story. I found it quite difficult to stop once I had got into it, and overall enjoyed it very much.

It’s a children’s book, so it was evidently going to have a happy ending, but it was still quite tense in many places; there’s an oddly mystical element too - a ragged old man plays quite a large part in the story, and Gill sometimes wonders exactly who he might be...

All in all, a very enjoyable book. Written as contemporary fiction in 1943, it gives a nice picture of everyday life in the countryside in the war years. I’m only sorry I didn’t pick one of these books up before, but look forward to reading the others over the next few months.

Recommended to older children or teens who like a good story with likeable characters, set in the past. Tends to be quite pricey, but may be found second-hand in the newer editions.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 16th June 2013

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