Friday, November 18, 2016

A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic Durbin

During wartime, in an unnamed country, in an unnamed village, a boy has come to live with his grandmother for the summer.  His father is fighting in the war, his mother is occupied with a new job, and the countryside is considered safe from the bombs.  His grandmother keeps a garden, and is respected in the community for her knowledge of growing things.  The boy quietly fits into her routine, working in the garden, running errands in the community, and writing to his father.

 Tranquility is destroyed when an enemy plane is shot down near the village.  The boy and his grandmother find the pilot, and with the help of Mr. Girandole, a friend of the boy's grandmother (and the only named character) who is more than he appears,  they first heal and then conceal the soldier in the woods above the village.  This leads the boy to a mystery - a castle in ruins and a grove filled with monstrous statuary that may be a doorway to another world.  He sets out to solve the mystery and open the door.  But the enemy soldier's presence has drawn the attention of the outside world, and the village may no longer be safe.

We never learn the name of the boy or the country, or even whether the story is set in our world, but it really doesn't matter.  The universality of war, of fear, of prejudice, but also of love and courage and sacrifice make those details irrelevant. This is a beautifully written, lyrical and gentle story of coming of age with subtle fantasy.  It has an old fashioned feel to it, caused in part by Durbin's prose, but also by his use of letters in place of names (Major P---, Mrs. C---), similar to a 19th century novel.

It's hard to think of a good readalike for A Green and Ancient Light.  Uprooted by Naomi Novik has some of the same themes, but is far more a traditional fantasy.  Another good possibility is Neil Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane.  What it reminded me most was of the many fantasies I read as a child where another world was just beyond our own, strange and familiar at the same time.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

You made me think of Pan's Labyrinth.