The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden is a semi-autobiographical novel about an English family visiting rural France in, I think, the 1920s or early 1930s (the book has telephones and cars but few other dating references but that would fit with the author’s birthdate). I read a newspaper article recently which was written by someone who had done a bit of research and said that there is no evidence that the events of the book really took place as claimed by the author – this is largely irrelevant to the reader of the book who can accept it all as fiction.
A mother and her five children are travelling through France when an infected mosquito bite causes the mother to be hospitalised with blood poisoning (sepsis ?). Because there is no adult with the party the local hotel refuses to take them until an Englishman, Eliot, who is staying there offers to be their temporary guardian. In practice the hotel owner doesn’t want them around so the children run wild in the local area and spend their time observing the owner of the hotel who is having an affair with Eliot, her dour companion, a visiting painter and the staff.
The book is narrated by the second child Cecil who is young enough not to understand the sexual tension, especially that surrounding the oldest daughter, but old enough to record it in her narrative. During the glorious summer suddenly the world outside breaks in and the book becomes much darker and actually turns into a crime story. It’s beautifully done and quite unexpected.
The characters in the book are very well portrayed and the tension rises because of their actions but the glory of the book is in the descriptions of the French summer and landscape. This is a coming of age book and Cecil is a delightful character who slowly begins to understand what is happening as the book reaches its climax. The children are out of their depth and vulnerable without an adult and the story also shows us how naïve they all are.
This isn’t a long book but it is a powerful one with some excellent writing. The use of sexual tension also reminded me of the author’s best known book Black Narcissus which I review very briefly here. Both draw on the author’s well-travelled childhood.