I was sure that I had read Susan Cooper’s books as a child, but I was equally sure that I didn’t really remember them. When I ordered a copy of ‘Under Sea, Under Stone’ from my library’s fiction reserve – a copy old enough that it could have been the copy I read back in the day – I began to understand why. In the case of this book it is for the very best of reasons: it is built on such classic lines, with elements familiar from many stories for children, that I found that I knew it without realising that I did, that it had almost become a part of my consciousness, something I always knew.
This is the story of three children – Simon, Jane and Barney – whose summer holiday to Cornwall turned into an extraordinary adventure.
It begins with their arrival in Cornwall, and it was clear from the start that Susan Cooper knew and understood Cornwall. She caught it perfectly, and that reassured me that I was in the safest of hands.
The children and their parents had been invited by their Great Uncle Merry – an architect and traveller, with a habit of disappearing for long periods of time – to stay with them in the house he has rented for the summer, in a Cornish seaside village.
What starts as a classic summer holiday changes on a rainy day. The children notice that there seems to be space unaccounted for between two rooms, and when they move the furniture they find a door. A door that leads into a dusty, disused storeroom where, among the debris, they find an old manuscript.
They realise that it is a map. A treasure map, maybe?
They realise that there are people, ruthless people, trying to get their hands on that map. And so it must lead to something extraordinary?
The story of the hunt for the treasure plays out beautifully, with just the right amount of twists and turns, and Simon, Jane and Barney were utterly believable and wonderfully engaging. It was a little predictable maybe, that Simon was sensible and took charge, that Jane was thoughtful and practical, that Barney was bright and curious, but it didn’t matter because everything they spoke, they behaved like real children.
They’re scared of what might happen, but they aren’t prepared to give up, and the dangers they face are greater than they know …..
I cared about them, I worried about them, and I was anxious to know what would happen. There were moments when I saw what was going to happen, when I wanted to warn them, but of course I couldn’t. I could only keep turning the pages, and keep hoping for the best.
There’s a hint of magic, a hint of something fantastical, but no more than a hint. it’s enough though to make it clear that this story is a beginning, not an end.
I had one or two niggles: some of the characters were rather predictable, some things fell into place a little too easily, and I couldn’t believe that the children’s parents didn’t notice that something was going on.
But the good things more than outweighed them. The writing and the storytelling was lovely. The evocation of Cornwall was lovely, and I was so very taken with the way Susan Cooper wove local myths and legends into her story, and with the way the she used nature and the character of the Cornish coast.
‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ is one of those timeless stories for children that also works very well for grown-ups. And now that I have read it again I am going to have to go back to the library catalogue to look for the rest of the series …..