Tag Archives: Matteo

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Dragonfly Pool’

Ah, yes. Another classic from Eva Ibbotson.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

This was a delicious book, one which I couldn’t help reading whenever I got the chance, and one I looked forward to coming back to in the quiet of evening. It’s so well written; the skill with language here is remarkable, the sentences perfectly cut and rhythmically perfect, complete in every detail. As well as that, it takes as its setting a very serious and painful era of human history and makes it into something beautiful, and full of hope, and I love it for that reason alone.

The Dragonfly Pool is the story of Tally (full name: Talitha, named for her great-grandmother, a woman of such fortitude that she used to physically remove the socks from the tramps on the London underground and wash and dry them before returning them), her family, and her life at school, all set against the opening days of the Second World War. Tally’s father is Dr Hamilton, a man more interested in the salvation of his patients than in earning money, so they are well-respected and deeply loved by their neighbours and friends, but quite poor – not that this bothers Tally in the least (at least, not in terms of acquisitiveness). She also lives with her father’s two elderly aunts who have raised her since infancy, as her mother died when Tally was only a few days old. When the war opens, all the adults in Tally’s life realise that they will have to send her away from London in case she is injured in the fighting, and the story begins by taking us through the sorrow felt by all of the people Tally knows as they think about losing her, and how much they will miss her – all before Tally herself has been told that she must go away. I loved this strange, oblique and moving way of showing the reader how much Tally means to everyone around her, and how much she has brought to her small corner of the world.

Tally is offered a scholarship to a ‘progressive’ boarding school in Devon called Delderton, and at first she is hugely resistant to the idea that she might like and enjoy it there. She knows she will miss her family cruelly, as well as the city she has grown up in and loves, but she submits to her father’s wishes and allows herself to be taken away on a train full of strange, alternative-seeming children, all of whom are fellow students at the school. As soon as she arrives, though, she is struck by Delderton’s beauty and its liberated teaching methods, designed to bring out each student’s individuality and potential, and while it takes her some time to get on board with it all, she soon finds herself warming to her new life.

While at school she meets many friends, including a girl named Julia with whom she goes into a nearby town one day to watch a film. The film, Tally thinks, isn’t up to much, but the newsreel beforehand – which shows a clip from a country called Bergania, a tiny European nation which is bravely standing up to Hitler and his advancing army – catches her attention. When, a few weeks later, a chance emerges for Tally and her schoolmates to travel to Bergania on a cultural exchange, she works hard to convince her headmaster of the merits of the trip, and so they set off. Little do they know that their presence in Bergania at this particular juncture in that country’s history will end up changing the course of that history, as well as Tally’s life and the lives of everyone she knows.

The book’s setting is so unusual – not many children’s books set during WWII are this beautiful, this positive, this hopeful. Bergania may not be ‘real’, but its spirit is; every Allied nation which stood against the encroaching Nazis is reflected in Ibbotson’s depiction. I adored the way Ibbotson paints the German people, too, and how she takes several opportunities to make it clear that ‘German’ does not equal ‘Nazi’, and that the average German person was not necessarily a facet of the evil of their ruling party. She shows the suffering of German children alongside that of Berganian ones, and British ones, and children of all nationalities, and she shows with great skill the power of unity and the ability of friendship and fellow-feeling to overcome all obstacles. She also takes the idea of royalty, in the person of Karil (the crown prince of Bergania), and shows how when these constructs of status are stripped away all that is left behind are flawed, insecure and frightened human beings, children – like Karil – who need help and a loving family and who, finally, eventually, receive what they are looking for. She shows the power of a good teacher, and how one invested and interested adult at a crucial point in a child’s life can do so much good, and she explores the importance of being oneself, and allowing one’s individuality to shine through.

All this, and a cracking story, too? Well. It is Eva Ibbotson, after all.

The only tiny thing which bugged me (and this happened with Journey to the River Sea, too), was that Tally was a little too good and perfect for my liking. Maia, in Journey to the River Sea, was just the same: absolutely ideal in every way. I kept hoping Maia would throw a hissy fit, and in this book I kept willing Tally to lose her temper or say the wrong thing to the wrong person and have to try to make amends for it later – but that’s such a small quibble in such an accomplished book. If you haven’t yet made room for Ibbotson in your life, you really should – and you can’t go wrong if you start with The Dragonfly Pool. It’s fast become one of my all-time favourite reads.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Rooftoppers’

It might not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I, S.J. O’Hart, am rather a fan of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

I am using this image because it's actually rather apt, and not at all because it's of said actor. Holding a baby.  Image: celebitchy.com

I am using this image because it’s actually quite apt in relation to the plot of the novel under discussion, and not at all because it’s of said actor. Holding a baby. *wibble*
Image: celebitchy.com

Anyone who has seen this erudite gentleman’s work will know three things: he is rather tall; he has a mellifluous voice, and he is – or, at least, he gives the impression of being – quite intelligent. For all these reasons, he is, and shall remain, my mental image of the character of Charles Maxim, one of the central players in Katherine Rundell’s sophomore novel, ‘Rooftoppers.’

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

The aforementioned Maxim is a 6’3″ tall 36-year-old bachelor and scholar described as having “a voice that sounds like moonlight, if moonlight could talk.” He is a passenger on the ‘Queen Mary’, a liner which – as the novel opens – has just finished the process of sinking. He rescues a tiny baby from the water – she is floating in a cello case, which becomes a central image in the novel – and immediately decides to love and care for her as though she were his own. He names her Sophie, because it seems apt, and he holds on to her despite the disapproval of the National Childcare Agency and their continual attempts to remove her from him. Under his gentle, eccentric and utterly loving care, Sophie grows into a tall, confident and intelligent twelve-year-old who only has one thing lacking in her life – her mother, of whom she has distinct and inexplicable memories despite the fact that she was barely a year old when she last laid eyes on her.

Eventually, the National Childcare Agency issues an ultimatum – surrender Sophie to them, or face punishment. So, naturally, Charles and Sophie decide to skip the country. From a clue accidentally discovered, they decide to go to Paris as – they hope – Sophie’s mother may be there. Charles, like most other adults, believes that Sophie’s mother went down with the ‘Queen Mary’, and that Sophie couldn’t possibly remember her, but, as he has taught Sophie throughout her life, ‘never ignore a possible.’ So, he resolves to overcome his own doubt and help Sophie in her search.

They approach the Parisian authorities and get nowhere, but they do manage – through tracing the cello which they know Sophie’s mother owned – to find out her name. Using this information, they attempt to have her traced as a missing person, but they run up against legal and jurisdictional issues all over the place. Eventually, for fear of being sent back to England, Charles asks Sophie to stay in their hotel room, hidden, while he carries on the search – but she meets a young boy called Matteo, who is a Rooftopper, or a homeless child who lives ‘in the sky.’

And thus, Sophie’s career as a rooftopper begins.

Image: theyoungfolks.com

Image: theyoungfolks.com

Now, there was so much about this book that I loved. I can’t say enough about how much I adored Sophie and Charles’ relationship, which was – very clearly – a parent/child relationship, but also one between equals, wherein Sophie’s intelligence, agency and independence were respected. I adored Katherine Rundell’s use of language, which shines with beautiful, polished, exquisitely realised turns of phrase. I loved the use of music, both that played on the cello and that sung by human voices, and I really enjoyed the world she creates on the rooftops of Paris.

But. But. There were things that spoiled the novel for me, too.

Firstly, there’s so little logic in Sophie’s search. She works out, for instance, where the records for the ‘Queen Mary’ are probably being held, but – instead of going straight there, with Matteo’s help – she spends ages learning the life of a rooftopper, eating pigeon and walking on tightropes and so on. In some ways this is amazing; in others, it’s annoying. Sophie is incredibly intelligent, so the fact that it doesn’t occur to her to search for the ship’s records for so long is irritating. Then, there’s the fact that the end happens so suddenly, after such a long and lyrical build-up, and it’s so incredibly unrealistic. Now, I know the whole book is rather like a dream or a fairytale, filled with whimsy and delicate beauty, and I accept all that, but the first half (perhaps even three-quarters) of the book is so beautifully paced (despite Sophie’s slowness in putting the pieces of her puzzle together) that the end feels like a slap across the face.

I just – I really didn’t like the end. Some people think it fits with the fast pace of the novel overall, and feel that it fits with the musical theme of the plot, but I was left frustrated by it.

But, the book is filled with life lessons like ‘Never underestimate children,’ and ‘Do not underestimate girls,’ and ‘Books crowbar the world open for you,’ and ‘there are people who would come out in a rash at the sight of a broken rule.’ It is filled – stuffed – with some of the most gorgeous language I’ve ever read, including some of the most startlingly original metaphors I’ve ever seen, which I delighted in. I loved all the characters, though I really thought some of them were underdeveloped. I’d have read a book about Matteo and his friends, alone – which is, of course, a good thing.

In short, it’s a definite recommendation, but I’ll warn you now that you’ll fall in love with Charles Maxim. It’s impossible not to. In fact, you’ll fall a little in love with all the characters in this book, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Artist: Terry Fan Image: society6.com

Artist: Terry Fan
Image: society6.com

Katherine Rundell is a great talent. ‘Rooftoppers’ is not a perfect book, but it’s not far off.