A bird in the hand

Elizabeth Goudge's Bird in the Tree couldn't be more different from my last neo-realist read Christ Stopped at Eboli. Christ stopped at Eboli is gritty and realistic, bone-crunchingly real, this is life and it ain't pretty. Elizabeth Goudge's romances with Christian undertones (sometimes more overt than others) are definitely not life as it is lived, but rather how you would rather like life to be lived in the best of all possible worlds. She doesn't shy away from the realities of life; there is grief and illness and old age, and even adultery, but the evils of the world are smoothed away as just a small part of a much bigger Christian inspired picture. This all sounds very twee and rather saccharine, but in fact she's a lovely writer.

Her Christianity is no more in your face than, for large swathes of the Narnia chronicles, is C.S. Lewis's faith. And there's a wonderful homely, comforting, wrap you around in a big shawl with a cup of honey and lemon quality about her books, that makes them eminently readable. The bird in the tree is the first of the trio of Damerosehay books - a series set in an old house near Buckler's Hard in Hampshire. The house has become a refuge for the extended Eliot family presided over by the aged and indomitable Grandmother Lucilla, a veritable Victorian Grande-dame.

Although the first in the series, this was actually the last of the series that I read, and I don't think it's quite as good as the others - some of the problems of the principal characters quite literally vanish in the night, and it's not altogether convincing. Nevertheless, as is always the case with Elizabeth Goudge, it's a heartwarming, spellbinding tale. Goudge has a wonderful sense of place, and Damerosehay, its history and surroundings are beautifully brought to life. The young children of the family are also gloriously uproariously real, as are the dogs - with some of the best dog portrayals I have ever read. Where she is less successful is with the twenty-something characters, who feel a little unreal. Mere players to be prodded around the set. My favourite parts of the book besides the child/dog interactions were the background to the house's history which was magically written.

Goudge isn't the kind of author I could read everyday, but to read occasionally is like diving into a hot bath after a muddy windy dogwalk; and as nice a soft centre as you could hope to bite into.

Bookworm blogs about a fascinating tour of Damerosehay country - well worth a read.


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