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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Often it’s not the quality of a book that counts so much as when you read it. Things that thrilled me in my youth seem tedious when I go back to them now, so I don’t re-read much, preferring to hold on to the memory of the first vivid experience.

Sometimes a book comes along entirely by chance at exactly the right moment. I heard about One Million Little Pieces - a powerful semi-fictional memoir of drug rehabilitation - right after a friend had died after years of substance abuse. I stayed awake all night reading it.

But that’s quite rare. More often it takes luck and judgement to know which book to pick up next, because what comes before influences your reaction to the new one. You can miss out on a great book, by starting it too soon after another with a lingering atmosphere.

That happened after I finished A Single Man, when I found that an early Marian Keyes I had been keenly anticipating didn’t capture me at all. I’ve put it away for a sun lounger moment. With a big meaty literary read next on the bedside pile I needed something to smooth my passage, so I turned to my collection of Persephone books.

This wonderful British imprint publishes forgotten treasures, which have languished out of print.

They are beautiful objects in their own right, with signature dove grey jackets, each with its own set of brightly-printed end papers, taken from a design of the period when the book was written. And a matching bookmark. Joyous.

I have a small pile of them on a shelf, so pleasing to look at and always there when I need a gentle segue from one big shouty book to another.

Because although they are by a wide cross section of authors – there are works of non-fiction too – they all seem to have a similar quality of restraint and elegance, which seems to sit well no matter what you’ve been reading recently.

This is one of Noel Streatfeild’s* forgotten adult books. I adored Ballet Shoes and all the rest when I was a child and was delighted when I was 14 to discover her memoir, A Vicarage Childhood. It gripped me so much, I remember reading it on my way home from school and walking smack into a lamp post. Painful.

Saplings is the story of a middle-class London family with four children growing up in the six years of World War 2. At first I was amused by their tiny anxieties, which made me think of the ‘middle class problems’ jokes on Twitter (‘My Aga has stopped working and I’m going to Barbados tomorrow’ etc).

The arrival of evacuees means the oldest girl can’t have her usual bedroom at her grandparents’ country house; the oldest son is anxious his sister will spoil the shrimping expedition, that kind of thing.

But I underestimated Ms Streatfeild, who incrementally increases the stress on these apparently privileged kids over the course of the war, until by the end, after a constant accumulation of small hurts, misunderstandings and bad decisions made for them, on top of one big trauma, you can see that their lives have been quite ruined.

It’s done with sublime skill and with an almost forensic understanding of how a child’s mind works and develops over time. Confused adolescent longings are described as ‘mud and flowers’.

Streatfeild appears to make fun of herself in the book, including in it a character who is a childless writer, famous for her fine portrayal of children and their feelings. She never had children. But as a late mother myself (43), I can testify that this would be exactly how she held on to her insight. Once you become a parent you seem immediately to join the gamekeepers and lose that perception.

The adults in the book are observed with equal precision, each character’s thoughts and motives economically but exactly described.

For a writer like me, not brave enough to venture from the first person, it’s a master class in the use of the omniscient point of view, when the narrator relates what every character thinks and does, written with the utmost elegance.

But more importantly, it’s a jolly good and thought-provoking read.

* Streatfeild is the odd but correct spelling.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 4
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 8
Recommend to gay best friend: 5
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 8
Read on public transport: 10


  1. I agree entirely with the context of your life in which you read a book having a great impact on how much you appreciate it.

    Like you, I have trouble reading even my favourite book a second time - the first turnings of the pages are unreproducible magic.

  2. I didn't even realise she'd written adult books. I loved her stories as a child and was quite sad when I didn't have any girls to share them with - instead reading Famous Five with boys. I'll take a look - I love those beautiful Persephone books.

  3. Damn you and your beautifully arranged recommendation, Alderson. An 8. I suppose that I am required to read this, now.

  4. I too loved Noel Streatfield as a child and hadn't thought to check whether she'd written any adult fiction. I feel a late arvo trip to Berkelouw coming on to furnish me with a good weekend read.

    Love your score chart

  5. Thanks so much for comments. It is so great to get instant feedback - the advantage of blogs over the printed word... Mxxx

  6. Oh wow, I never knew anyone else in the world had heard of Noel Streatfield! This makes me happy. I was given The Growing Summer by a neighbour as a child and it became a fast favourite. I actually re-read it just the other day. Will have to check out the ones you've mentioned now. You should find a copy of The Growing Summer, such a sweet, sweet tale of childhood adventures.

  7. The only book I read by Noel S was Thursdays Child - which I completely adored. very shabby memory now but it was about a girl who lived on a boat along the canals waterways of rural england( sorry totally ignorant of actual location). It was bliss.
    Persephone's - I dont know who distributes this list in Oz but I will find out.


  8. Maggie, I loved Ballet Shoes...did you read the Gemma series? Gemma Alone? Gemma and sisters etc? I still have them all. I longed to live in a box room and have an actress mother living in America...Love the blog.

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  10. Hi Maggie - I'm a big fan of your books and your newest blog follower!

    Thanks for the recommendation on Streatfeild - I've added her to my "must read" list.

  11. It's a great imprint. Their shop near Holborn is a real treat. I've just finished a collection of stories by Molly Panter-Downes. Ledishus.

  12. Noel Streatfeild wrote lots of darker adult novels. Saplings and Judith are two good ones.