To my left, dwarf iris. To my right, lilacs. All around me, sunlight. Because truly, the only appropriate location to write a review of Frederic S. Durbin’s latest novel, A Green and Ancient Light, is in a garden with a blue sky above and a wisteria-tinged wind teasing by.
OK, OK. A sacred wood would also be suitable… but they are harder to find in Iowa. What’s not hard to find in Iowa? Cornfields. Which is where I procured my copy of A Green and Ancient Light, after it was shot there by a trebuchet. The book smelled of clouds after I ripped the package open. If you doubt me, I have a notice typed by Durbin himself on a 1935 L.C. Smith 8 to prove it.
Do I squeal now or later? How about always. I LOVE THIS BOOK. It left me breathless. I didn’t want to move after I finished it. Moving meant breaking a beautiful moment. Moving meant stepping out of the sublime. Moving meant letting go of a village that I wanted to live in. A Green and Ancient Light is SO GOOD.
It is a war story. A family story. A coming of age story. A love story. It brings an eloquent calm to the page reminiscent of Bradbury.
Our unnamed narrator refuses to tell us his name.
“I won’t tell you my name or that of the village where I spent that spring and summer when I was nine. I won’t because you should realize there were towns just like it and boys just like me all around the sea – and in other countries beyond the mountains, and all over the world.”
His father is a captain fighting in an unidentified war for an unidentified country. His mother works in a city factory and takes care of his baby sister. The boy is sent for the summer to an innominate, remote village to live with a grandmother he has never met. His parents hope that he will be safer there but soon after the boy arrives, an enemy plane crashes into the sea. That night, the boy and his grandmother are woken by a mysterious man, Mr. Girandole – the only named character in the novel – who has found the enemy pilot hanging from his parachute in the woods behind Grandmother’s home.
Let us reflect on the woods. This village draws comfort, pleasure, and life from the sea… but the woods…
“…it’s best not even to think very loud about the forest. Where the sun doesn’t go and the salt breeze can’t blow away the cobwebs, no good can happen, and that’s a fact. Witch-weasels and sickle-winds, and old Mr. Clubfoot with his hollow-back — lots of no good in the woods.”
The whole village believe the woods to be haunted. They are unnerved by the ruins contained therein. A mad duke centuries before built a tilted tower and a garden of fantastic beasts for his wife. Overgrown and enigmatic as the Grove of Monsters is, most of the villagers would rather ignore it exists. Except for Grandmother.
The boy, Grandmother, and Mr. Girandole arrive to find the enemy soldier still alive, but barely.
Questions abound in A Green and Ancient Light. Should the boy, Grandmother, and Girandole save the solider… he is, after all, an enemy. Should they turn him in after they save him knowing that he will be immediately killed? Should they lie about their whereabouts to neighbors? What is a lie and what is “camouflage?” Do mortal wars matter when standing on hallowed ground?
…They save the enemy pilot. Let’s rephrase that. Grandmother – the only one not squeamish of blood – saves him. Even after getting stitched up, the soldier looks not long for the world. But that is only the beginning of A Green and Ancient Light. The merest of opening pages… a riddle awaits in the Grove of Monsters, one that must be solved if the soldier is to find safety and Mr. Girandole ever attain true happiness. But how the heck do you solve the puzzles of a mad duke in a grove that has been outlawed by the current regime to walk in? Especially when there is an unsettling major with a truck full of troops snooping around…
This novel has the pleasant pace of a Sunday walk. It is not your standard war story for it features an old woman as the most battle-ready of the bunch. It is not your standard love story for the depth of friendship is explored far more than any bodily connection. It is the book you want to read after you’ve gone through Peter S. Beagle’s oeuvre and don’t know what the heck to read next.
SO LOVELY. Love. Love. Love.
A Green and Ancient Light comes out on June 7, 2016. Grab it from your local bookstore or over by here.
Patty Templeton wants to live in the Grove of Monsters, even if the tower is tilted. Maybe because the tower is tilted. If she can’t have that, she’d settle for adopting a puppy and a house with a pleasant porch.
You buying her first novel, There Is No Lovely End, will help her buy a house… someday. Or maybe just in attaining lunch.