‘For Jinny this Changing would be different. This moment would never fade for her. She knew that inside herself. She could feel it being etched into her memory.’ (p 8)
I bought this book when it came out in paperback, towards the end of last year, but have only just got around to reading it. But, wow! Now that I have!
This is an deeply affecting book. It is a book whose narrative simplicity belies its emotional richness and its profoundly human understanding. It is not a book for the thrill seeking young reader; it is no action packed rollercoaster of an adventure, yet I would put it straight onto my list of greatest ever children’s novels.
Nine on an island
Its strange, haunting story is about nine children, one of each age from four to twelve, living out their early years together on an isolated, otherwise uninhabited island. Mists shroud every horizon and it is essentially the only world they know, apart from that they learn about in a large selection of old children’s books that they read together regularly. Their island is very much a paradise in which they live, for the most part, in happy safety and security. There are always plentiful sources of food, of the natural, wholesome kind. Whilst there are also some animal on the island, all of them, even the snakes, are harmless. Apart from minors bangs and scratches, the children remain healthy too. In many real senses the island takes care of them. Even though there are high cliffs at one end, should the children fall (or even jump!) over the edge, a supportive breeze always buffets them back to safety - one of the very many captivating and memorable images of the book.
‘Joon . . . took a running leap off the top of the high cliff and, for an instant, shone bright, silhouetted against the sun. It looked like Joon would fall, and Ess gasped. But a second later a soft push of wind brought her feet back to solid ground. . . Jinny laughed. . . “The cliffs won’t let you fall. You’re safe.” ‘ (p 66)
Despite differing temperaments and personalities, the children live in largely harmonious cooperation, following the ‘rules’ of the island, which are passed down from the older to younger children. The only significant disruption of this life comes from the fact that once each year a boat appears out of the mists with a sole occupant. It brings one new youngest child and takes away the eldest, giving the group an annual ‘succession’. As the novel opens, the boat arrives and the story’s principal character, Jinny, becomes the eldest of the group, taking on the care of the youngest newcomer, Ess, and educating her in the ways of the island.
In its early stages, the narrative develops largely through the incidents of the children’s daily life, and, although gently lyrical, appears superficially undramatic. Yet its reading is continually underpinned by the captivatingly intriguing mystery of what this is all about. Where is this island? How did the children get there? Why are they there? What happens to those who leave? It is amazing how riveting such apparently simple storytelling turns out to be. The multiple, haunting images of the story add up to one extended metaphor. But a metaphor for what? It is its own unique form of page-turner.
And when, later, events take off in a very dramatic, in many ways shocking, direction, the compulsion to race towards the end is irresistible. By this stage, we know and care about Jinny so deeply, that we become part of her dilemma, her confusion, and her fear of the future.
To each our own island
It is book for those on the cusp between the relative safety and simplicity of childhood and that far more confusing and troublesome hinterland that we call adolescence. In her postscript, the author says she wrote the book for her own twelve-year-old self and it is a wondrous gift to all other girls at, or approaching, the same sort of age/stage. But I do not think that books have ages or genders. They need to be widely available so that readers (any readers) can find them when they need them. I am sure this truthful and compelling novel will be equally appreciated and valued by older readers who remember that time in their own lives. It may even jog more than a few memories. And even though it is principally about a girl, sometimes very specifically, boys need to understand the ways in which they are different, and the many ways they are the same - and to be allowed to know that the confusions and fears of growing up are shared.
However, I am now close to seventy, and the book, for me, took on a whole other layer of enormously poignant meaning. Whether intended by the author or not, almost every single image of the story resonated with my reading. You see I too am lining up the pebbles. I know that the green blur is on the misty horizon - and that the island has its rules.
When you read the book, or if you already have, you will, I hope, understand.
This is surely one of the finest and most important works of American children’s fiction, and believe me, the greatest of American writing for children is amongst the very best in the English-speaking world. I rate it alongside such masterpieces of the genre (and I do not use the term lightly) as Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs and Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. It is that special.