Friday, 15 March 2013

LISTEN TO THE NIGHTINGALE by Rumer Godden. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

The first thing I saw when I opened this book was a dedication to Marni Hodgkin and I felt this was a good omen. Hodgkin must have been Godden's editor at Macmillan when this book first appeared in 1992. She was also the very first person in this country who ever took a story of mine, back in the Seventies so I was delighted to think that I had shared an editor with Rumer Godden.

I wrote about the companion volume to this novel, THURSDAY'S CHILDREN, in February and said how much I enjoyed it. I liked this book even more. The two have a lot in common. They're both about children dedicating themselves to a life in dance, and particularly in the ballet with greater or lesser degrees of talent and commitment. They both have ballet school settings. They both emphasise the necessity of hard work and loyalty. They are old fashioned and you'd never guess that this was first came out a little over twenty years ago. It's not just that it seems to be describing a world that's long gone, but also that the pace, the events, the whole tone and emotional register of the book is something that I am pretty sure today's children's books editors would send back to its author saying: this is not for us. It isn't whizzy or pacey or exhaustingly action-packed. Things don't rush along. It's written carefully and plainly and has no truck with getting 'down with the kids' or wanting to be fashionable. As I said in February, if you didn't get the occasional reference to modes of transport or televisions, it could be set in Edwardian times.

The story concerns Lottie, who lives with her aunt at Verbena Road. She has learned to dance at Holbein's, a small theatre nearby and Madame Holbein is instrumental in getting her into Queen's Chase, which is based on White Lodge, the school where dancers in the Royal Ballet receive their training. At the begining of the story, Lottie acquires Prince, a beautiful King Charles Spaniel and he is both very important in the story and also takes a starring part in the final ballet of the novel, which is called The Birthday of the Infanta. Prince takes centre stage as the pet of the Infanta herself, depicted in Velasquez' masterpiece, Las Meninas.

One of the main themes of the book, alongside the dancing and the putting on of the ballet is the importance of families. Godden made no special case for nuclear families: theatrical companies, women on their own, a school: all these provide a family framework for the children in them and teach them many valuable life lessons. That friendship is sometimes difficult; that you can becomet impatient or irritated with those you love; that someone you thought of as your friend can occasionally bully you dreadfully or be horrible to you in many different ways - these truths are not skated over but dealt with frankly and fairly. Rivalries, jealousies, the tantrums attendant on life in the performing arts: they're all here, but so are the triumphs and the real pleasure of being on stage.

One of the things I've loved since early childhood is a book which has proper respect for details, especially details of clothes and food and in this novel you will find them in abundance. The preparations for Christmas are a particular delight.

I have to say that I think Virago, who are to be noisily acclaimed for bringing these and other books by Rumer Godden into the light again, haven't done the two books I've reviewed any favours in the matter of covers. Only the most ardent balletomanes will be naturally drawn to the images they've chosen, which is why I'm glad to have had the chance to review them. The cover they've given IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE (which I adored when I was much younger and can't wait to read again) is wonderful.

Meanwhile, do spread the word, via Twitter and Facebook about these reissues. It's an initiative I wish more publishers would emulate.

Publisher: Virago Modern Classics

Price: £6.99 pbk.



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