Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Review: - Saplings by Noel Streatfeild
Saplings was the last Noel Streatfeild novel I had on my shelves that I had never read before, and having finished it I wish that I'd been able to stray from re-reading more and delve deeper into her adult novels. Being brought up on her children's novels (Ballet Shoes and the rest..) I thought I knew what to expect from her, but Saplings proved me wrong. Yes, it was still told with a similar voice to favourites such as Apple Bough and White Boots; it still had that childish innocence and simplicity in the way that the story was told, but the subject matter, to put it plainly, shocked me. Anywhere but in a Streatfeild novel I would have barely blinked at the regular references to sex, the evidence of the psychological trauma created by death, and the dealings with alcoholism, depression, and attempted suicide, but in Streatfeild, it rocked my safe little world.
I came across the beautiful Persephone edition of the book while rumaging in one of the most awesome second hand bookshops ever, and then it sat on the shelf for ages, and only the impending end of the year finally coerced me into reading it, but I'm so glad that I did. I love it when an author (especially one as well - known and loved as Streatfeild) completely contradicts everything I expect of her, while still letting me know that this is still a Streatfeild book that I'm reading. Saplings is a book about the Second World War, but not at all in the same way that When the Siren Wailed was. The latter was a very simplistic childish account of wartime experiences, told through the eyes of the children only, whereas the former is this and much more - told through a variety of narrators, including the four Wiltshire children, both of their parents, their governess and various Aunts and Uncles, it builds up a hugely diverse, varied and intense account of the experiences of one family through one of the greatest struggles possible for an English familiy to live through in recent history.
Saplings starts off on a beach, with the children, Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday, enthralled by the fact that their parents Lena and Alex have arrived to spend the rest of the holidays with them. The opening scene is an incredibly Streatfeild-esque one - the children are pretty much all showing off for 'Dad', who is the hero of the story, and are planning on swimming out to their raft - a difficult feat for Kim, the showoff of the family, who has never done so before. From this innocuous beginning, the story rapidly intensifies, shocking me by the combination of the words 'passion' and 'naked' in the same sentence by page sixteen! The parts of the story told from the point of view of Lena, the children's mother, are integral to the build up of events - Alex and Lena's relationship is an incredibly intense one, and Lena is not particularly fulfilled by motherhood. Alex is what she lives for, and her love of him is very focused and consuming. You could say that it's her feelings for him which dictate the course of the entire novel.
The major reason that I found the novel so engrossing was the fact that it strayed from the usual happy ever after ending. Although the way the story ends is far from hopeless, it comes very abruptly, and there doesn't seem to much cohesion. Whereas usually the happiness of children is paramount in Noel Streatfeild's novels, this is never the case in Saplings. About a third of the way through the novel and incredibly sad and traumatic event occurs, which I don't want to mention because I'd really love you all to read the book, and after that the children's feelings are only considered from the point of view of the multitudes of relatives who feel they know 'what's best' for them. It was incredibly sad. It was also very sad to read children growing up without the healthy, wholesome, loving environments which are what I loved about Streatfeild's books as a child, and for that reason I'm glad that I waited to be twenty four before reading this novel. I know it sounds a bit pathetic of me to say, but part of me feels like I've had an idol smashed by the experience of reading Saplings. Because I am the age I am, I can enjoy it and realise that the experience I've had with this book eventually makes her a stronger writer for me, and one that I can continue to get to know and love from an adult point of view, rather than always reading her work with an eye for nostalgia. If I'd read it when I was younger, I'm not sure that would have been the case.
The blurb for this book talks about Noel Streatfeild's ability to see the world from a child's perspective, and says that what makes the book special is the way that she uses that skill to explore very adult problems, and this is definintely the case. The novel is basically a coming of age of all of the Wiltshire children to some degree, but mainly of Laurel, and her becoming a woman is marked by the many awful situations she experiences.
Not a happy book, but a very honest one, and a portrayal of the awful rammifications of the Second World War, even for those not directly involved in it, that you don't see often. I highly recommend this book. It gave me a totally new experience with an author I expected nothing new from, and that's an achievement.