Oh, I wish I hadn’t left it so long to start reading Eva Ibbotson.
I’d wanted to read some Ibbotson for ages, but this is the first one I have managed to get my hands on. It won’t, I’m sure, be the last.
Journey to the River Sea tells the story of Maia Fielding, an orphaned girl whose quiet, boring life in a genteel London boarding school is brought to an end when, one day, word arrives from her aunt and uncle in South America. They want to adopt her, and – apparently – give her the home she has been lacking since the accident which claimed her parents’ lives. Immediately, Maia dreams of her joyful reunion with her family, while the girls in her class waste no time telling her all about the horrible exotic diseases she is likely to contract in the rainforest.
A governess – the utterly fabulous Miss Minton – is quickly appointed to accompany Maia on the long and perilous journey, and, full of hope, they set off.
On the way, Maia meets many new and interesting people, including Clovis, a young boy of her own age who performs with an acting troupe. They have a booking in a town not far from where Maia will be living, and she makes a promise to come and see him perform. By the time they arrive, Maia and Miss Minton are bedraggled and exhausted, but amazed by the beauty of the landscape all around them.
Imagine their horror, then, when they arrive at the Carters’ (Maia’s relatives), to find them assiduously murdering every piece of exotic wildlife they possibly can, treating their Indian servants dreadfully and, in every respect, attempting to create the perfect ‘English’ life amid the rainforest instead of embracing their new life with gusto. Maia begins to understand that the perfect life she has dreamed of with her aunt, uncle and (utterly, brilliantly vile) twin cousins may not be everything she has hoped for.
Meanwhile, two strange black-clad investigators arrive from England in search of a long-lost heir to a fortune and a plush country estate in the ‘old country’. They think he is lost in the rainforest, and their instructions are to bring him back at all costs. But that’s until he meets up with Maia, and between them the children cook up a plot almost as dastardly as anything the investigators could have come up with…
I loved this book for many reasons. In approximate order of preference, these are: Miss Minton, Maia, the setting, the Carters and their stupidity/greed/vulgarity/general horribleness, and the fact that the book is rich with plot and subplot, all of which makes for a layered reading experience. Of course, the writing and dialogue and general characterisation is all spot-on, too; this is a quality piece of storytelling. The only tiny thing that irked me was that Maia is a bit too perfect, too universally loved (except by the dreadful Carters, but that’s how we know how evil they are) and too idealised, but I loved her, too. I adored her gentleness, her sense of justice, her concern and compassion for others, her instinctive drive to respect her environment and the other people who live in it, and her wide-eyed admiration for the new landscape in which she finds herself. I also loved her hope – she never gives up hoping for a better future, and that was beautiful. It would have been nice to see her throwing the odd tantrum, though, just to balance things up.
As for Miss Minton – well. I want to be her when I grow up. There’s a scene near the end of the book when she eventually, after resisting for ages (because PROPRIETY and STANDARDS, and all that), removes her corset and allows herself to breathe properly in the hot, humid jungle, and I felt like cheering. She’s loving, kind, brave, utterly devoted to Maia, intelligent, resourceful and unflappable – exactly the kind of person I am. In my imagination.
I also loved Clovis. If ever there was a character whose cheeks I wanted to squeeze, it’s him. I loved his struggles with his changing body and voice which may spell the end of his career as a cherubic little boy on stage, and the gradual unfolding of his ‘origin story’, which was very touching and, I’m sure, quite realistic too. I enjoyed Maia’s relationship with Finn, and I also found much to delve into in Ibbotson’s treatment of the Carters and how they have abused the workers in their rubber plantation and their short-sighted, destructive approach to harvesting the jungle’s resources. There are plenty of ‘lessons’ here, which don’t feel like lessons; plenty of quiet laments for the passing away of the beauty of the natural world, which sat well, if uncomfortably, with me.
in short, if you’re a human being, you need to read this book. It’s a deserved classic, and I wish I could read it again for the first time.