Rumer Godden writes beautifully. She is always completely in control of her prose, in a way that seems effortless. Not a word is wasted or ill-chosen. The characters are sharply drawn. Everything is very mannerly, very proper, even when the events themselves are not. This is not writing that is going to lift you out of your seat with emotion and drop you onto the floor. It may carve your heart out, but you won't feel the knife. It is writing that will make you think, even as it soothes your soul.
This book is the first-person narrative of the 13-year-old member of a family of English children who are dropped largely without ceremony into the mysteries of a French vacation villa when their mother is hospitalized. The narrator--rather ambiguously named Cecil--is a perfect story-teller. A girl-child with near-adult sensibilities, a budding writer with a clear eye and a quick tongue, she maintains an outsider's perspective. Her older sister, Joss, is 16 and on the dangerous cusp of womanhood where she attracts male attention but hasn't developed the strategies to cope with it. Their younger siblings are mostly in the way, as younger siblings usually are, yet each plays a key role in the events of that particular summer.
The month of August, post-World War II, in a French villa past its prime, run by a dyed and painted Frenchwoman unsuitably besotted with her suave and rather mysterious English boyfriend . . . . Could there be a more perfect setting for a coming-of-age story and the dreamy decay of the end of summer, and of childhood?
"You are the one who should write this," I told Joss. "It happened chiefly to you." But Joss shut that out as she always shuts out things, or shuts them in so that no one can guess.
"You are the one who likes words," said Joss. "Besides"--and she paused--"it happened as much to you."
I did not answer that. I am grown up now--or almost grown up--"and we still can't get over it!" said Joss.
"Most people don't have . . . that . . . in thirty or forty years," I said in defence.
"Most people don't have it at all," said Joss.
If I stop what I am doing for a moment, or in any time when I am quiet, in those cracks in the night that have been with me ever since when I cannot sleep and thoughts seep in, I am back; I can smell the Les Oeillets smells of hot dust and cool plaster walls, of jasmine and box leaves in the sun, of dew in the long grass; the smell that filled house and garden of Monsieur Armand's cooking and the house's own smell of damp linen, or furniture polish, and always, a little, of drains.