Title: A Green and Ancient Light
Author: Frederic S. Durbin
Set in a world similar to our own, during a war that parallels World War II, A Green and Ancient Light is the stunning story of a boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother for the summer in a serene fishing village. Their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane, the arrival of grandmother’s friend Mr. Girandole — a man who knows the true story of Cinderella’s slipper — and the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house. In a sumptuous idyllic setting and overshadowed by the threat of war, four unlikely allies learn the values of courage and sacrifice.
Ahh . . . This was a good one. I could finish this with a satisfied sigh ─ after, of course, the misting of the eyes. I love it and hate it when a story can bring the water to my usually parched eyes. This tale was magical, transporting you to a place far away, and yet close to home. Just like it did for the boy in the story.
The first two things I noticed when I began reading A Green and Ancient Light were 1) there are no chapters, only breaks in the narrative now and again, and 2) there are no names. Every time the name of a person or a place would be mentioned, the first letter is (usually) written and then left blank. The reasoning, according to the narrator (our main character), was because this could be the story of anybody anywhere. The only person who has a proper name is Mr. Girandole. Oh, Mr. Girandole . . . Once I got over the novelty of a story with only one name, it was smooth sailing. I filled in the blanks, actually, with some names of my own, and that, I suppose, was the purpose. (I won’t mention what I called the characters, so as not to spoil your own experience).
Everything else about this story was enchanting. Not some high-paced, swashbuckling epic fantasy, not some stamped-out contemporary fiction, this carried more of a fairy tale atmosphere. The woods and monster garden, where a large portion of the story takes place, is vivid in imagery ─ a beautiful and bewitching place that I loved going to as much as the main character (his name was G ──). It was a quiet and peaceful place, separate from the rest of the world, ancient and magical, full of grandiose statues and puzzling clues. For the monster garden, tucked away in the woods and partially swallowed by the brush, holds a mystery. A grand puzzle that hasn’t been solved in over four hundred years. The driving force of the story is solving this puzzle, sorting out the riddles and clues scattered amongst the stone to find the answer of where the duke who built the garden so long ago went. To find the place where Mr. Girandole came from. To find the door that will take him back home.
For Mr. Girandole is not an ordinary man, but a faun from the realm of Faery, who missed his chance to go back home with his brethren, and now lives alone in the woods. He, the main character, and the main character’s grandmother (known as Grandmother and M ──) work together over the summer during wartime to solve the mystery, all the while nursing back to health an enemy pilot who’d been gunned down in the forest, and avoiding incrimination by the Major P ── and his soldiers, who’ve come to hunt the pilot down. It got dicey a couple of times, but I am amazed by Grandmother’s wit and fortitude. She’s awesome.
Over the course of the story, through the summer these four undergo together, we get to experience with them how strangers become friends and enemies become allies, how love can make you do crazy things and sustain you through the hardest of times, how even in war there is beauty and purpose. How bad things can bring about good, if you’re willing to see it.
I could probably go on for a while and tell you just how much I enjoyed this book, but that would likely come at the expense of spoiling it for you, and I really think you ought to give this story a read. Set in the WWII era, it still feels like a fantasy, with no more magical creatures than Mr. Girandole and the faery songs that R ──, our pilot, plays on his flute. It brings out the awe and longing in the heart that (I know at least for myself) is awakened whenever the quiet and the stillness of the wood surrounds you, when the trees whisper and the sunlight filters through the leaves, hinting at life both green and ancient, just beyond the reach of our mortal hands.
This story made me laugh (those four are a hoot), it made me cry; it left me happy, and it left me sad. It reminds us to take the moments while they’re here, for they will soon pass, and never be the same again ─ to take the time to watch the sunset as it bleeds across the horizon, or the flowers glowing in the noonday sunlight, the mists hovering on the dawn air, the feel of the breeze, the sounds of the birds ─ all of it. For while the sun will set again, it won’t be the same as this one, and though the flowers will still bloom and glow, they won’t be the same as these, and so on.
Such is the message in a story about passing youth, about growing up. The monster garden is indeed haunted, by childhoods that were, and are no more. That summer, G ── grew up in many ways, leaving his youth behind in that wood, but his experiences there were irreplaceable, and though much was lost, much also was gained. Love was deep, lost souls found a home, and in the end, that is all we really need.
So again, I would highly recommend this book. It’s fun and witty with a heart and soul. I enjoyed every moment I could to read, and I ate it up over late nights and rainy afternoons. Definitely one for the shelves!
So what about you? What have you been reading of late? After what felt an age, it’s so good to finally have found a novel that wrapped me in its embrace until it told me its story. Are there any stories that have done the same for you? I’d love to hear about it, so don’t be shy!