There are many things that can tip me towards buying a book when I am on browsing, and on this particular occasion that thing was an picture of an elderly border terrier, sitting on the lap of the author. I thought of my lovely Pip, who turned just as white as Kit Pearson’s lovely Poppy, and I told myself that a story of a large family of children who imagined themselves to be Knights of the Round Table was exactly what I needed. Because border terrier people understand. It was – and she did.
In the early fifties the six Bell children lost their mother. Their father, a Shakespearean scholar who had named each child after a character, coped by retreating into his study, immersing himself in the writing of a book in the hours when he wasn’t sleeping or teaching. His children were supervised first by a much loved aunt and then by a succession of housekeepers. The house was big, the children were aloof, and so in fact there was little supervision at all.
It was the eldest child, Sebastian, who began the game of Knights of the Round Table. It brought the children together, it made them feel a little more secure in a world that had, with their mother’s death, become horribly uncertain. form of security in their scary world. The game became all-consuming; a quite glorious secret.
I saw the wonder, but I also saw the dangers, all beautifully and sensitively portrayed.
I also saw that the author so clearly understood, empathised with, everything she was writing about.
It was, of course, inevitable that things would change. Roz, the second eldest began to develop other interests. She wanted to spend more time with her school-friends, to try out as a cheer leader, and she began to pull away from her siblings and their game.
That left the third eldest, eleven-year old Corrie in an uncomfortable position. She knew how much the game meant to Sebastian and their younger siblings, and she loved the game. But she also wanted to spend time with Meredith, her new school-friend. Corrie loved visiting Meredith’s home where two parents were interested and involved with their only child, and ready to welcome Corrie and her younger siblings; and Meredith loved the freedom, the space, the company when she visited Corrie.
But Meredith wasn’t part of the game. And Sebastian forbade Corrie from saying anything about it. Anything at all.
Corrie saw things that worried her, and she began to realise that Sebastian was lost in his role as Lancelot, that he was losing touch with reality. She struggled to do her best for him, to look after the house and the other children, and to hold on to her friend and live her own life. She wanted to fix everything, but she wasn’t sure that she could.
I loved Corrie; she was an utterly believable eleven-year old. She was old enough to understand much, but she was still a child. I could understand her, admire what she was trying to do, but I also feared for her.
All of the children were as well drawn, and the complex family dynamics were captured perfectly.
I was charmed: by a world so beautifully realised, by lovely storytelling, and by such wonderfully drawn characters. And I appreciated that difficult themes – of grief, of mental illness – were dealt with sensitively and intelligently, and in a way that would speak to both children and adults.
At first I read this simply as a story of children, but as the story progressed I thought a little more that this was a book for children. I think that given the way the story played out that was inevitable. And that this is a story for children in the tradition of some of the great writers from the earlier years of the twentieth century.
… a beautifully executed and deeply touching story.