Published in 1958, this modern classic, a subtle psychological drama which manages to be both poignant and amusing about the loss of childhood innocence in a confusing adult world, was inspired by the author’s own experiences on a family visit to France in the early 1930s. Whereas the well-known film of 1961 has dated, the book retains the power to hook both teenagers and older readers.
With a botanist father who spends most of his time travelling abroad, and a mother who struggles to cope, narrator Cecil Grey and her four siblings chafe against the tedium of life in the pebble-dash suburbia of “Southstone”. Their mother’s impulsive plan to shock them out of their self-centred moaning by showing them the French battlefields, goes awry when she develops septicaemia from a horse-fly bite, and has to be hospitalised. This coincides with the eldest sibling Joss being perhaps somewhat implausibly struck down with acute PMT for several days. It is a plot device to free the other children to run wild in the French hotel where they are reluctantly accepted as second-class guests. Superficially charming and characterful it is in fact the scene of some shady goings on, as gullible foreign visitors to the nearby battlefields of the Marne are conned with a regularly maintained bloodstain on a carpet, and a human skull buried daily in the garden to be dug up by the hotel’s dogs.
Gorging themselves on the windfall greengages in the orchard so that they are too full to eat them when served up at dinner, only Cecil who knows some French (from having to write out French poetry as a punishment at school) realises that they are being used as “camouflage” for the scandalous relationship between the proprietor Madame Zizi and her charismatic English lover Eliot. A kind of unofficial guardian for the children, who adore him, he is a complex character, showing empathy for them, as when he gives Willmouse, the only boy in the family, an art book to feed his precocious interest in fashion design, but the suspicion grows that Eliot is mainly motivated by his infatuation with Joss, a beautiful sixteen-year-old who is beginning to grasp and exploit the power of her sexual attraction.
Deeply evocative and nostalgic in its descriptions of life in a historic French town on the banks of the Marne, and lightened with many humorous moments, this slow-burn study of human interaction morphs into a faster paced, tense crime story with one of those abrupt endings which leaves one reflecting on events and deciding for oneself what happens next.
Very successful in her day, Rumer Godden is one of those now forgotten authors who repays revisiting.