Grief, outsiderdom, friendship and prejudice: they’re all explored in this beautiful, poetic and perceptive book. It’s an extraordinary piece of children’s literature, and it haunted me throughout.
Untypically, the outsiderdom is not that of the classic “new girl” who narrates the story: she is Becky Stokes, a personable schoolgirl uprooted from her Birmingham roots to live in Okingham, a sleepy 1950s Buckinghamshire village; and she is quickly co-opted into the close-knit social circle of classmates Hermione, Barbara and Susan. However, she has to conceal from them a burgeoning – and arguably more intense and genuine – friendship with Cora Ravenwing, a lonely and morbidly troubled young girl who has become a pariah within this tiny community.
Cora is a fascinating character: the daughter of a free-spirited, proto-hippy mother who died during the birth, she was nursed as a baby by village busybody Mrs Briggs (whose own child has been a victim of cot death) before being returned into the care of her gravedigger father, whose grief is so absolute that he has played little part in her subsequent upbringing. Cora’s proximity to so many aspects of death and mortality has had a profound influence on her character, and a terrible impact on the community’s opinion of her. Spending her days obsessively tending her mother’s grave, she has gained a reputation as almost a harbinger of doom; even being described as a “devil child” by Mrs Briggs, now the chief instigator of the village’s unanimous policy to ostracise Cora from its everyday activities.
She is awkward, pale, detached and friendless… at least until she meets Becky, who is unsettled by Cora’s morbidity, but fascinated by her unaffected authenticity; an authenticity in stark contrast to the seemingly shallow, aspirational lifestyles of Hermione, Barbara and Susan. This contrast is epitomised, curiously, by poetry: Hermione’s “nature poetry” is lauded by teachers, pupils and parents alike… but despised by Cora, whose loss has given her a genuine connection with both the beauty and brutality of nature, and who sees Hermione’s verse as twee and superficial. Obsessed by her dead mother’s diaries and nature writing, Cora also possesses an impressive knowledge of traditional folk song, and a singing voice of remarkable purity. She reminded me a lot of Mina, the nature-obsessed teenager in David Almond‘s book Skellig (and its later prequel, My Name Is Mina), whose all-consuming relationship with the natural world, and her willingness to turn it into art, is equally profound and – indeed – has similar hints of the macabre.
Becky, of course, is tormented by a typically teenage dilemma: if she follows the advice of adults and fellow children alike, and abandons Cora, both children will be robbed of a friendship that has genuine depth and resonance. But maintaining the relationship will lead to Becky’s exclusion from virtually every other social group in the village, an impossible situation for someone so young. The book depicts this appalling quandary with incredible sensitivity and depth of character, and boldly offers little in the way of resolution: the ending, in particular, is both dramatic and unflinching. I was completely unaware of Cora Ravenwing until I found a copy recently, hidden in a used bookshop in a quiet North Yorkshire town, but I’m delighted to see that it was reiussed by Faber & Faber in 2013, and that Gina Wilson continues to gain praise and acclaim for her work as a poet.
Friendships at the turn of adolescence can be intense and profound, and often cast a long-standing shadow over our ensuing adult lives. That influence has rarely been more beautifully explored than in the story of Cora Ravenwing.
Point of Order: The back cover of my 1986 edition described the main protagonist as “Becky Schofield”, but in the text she is very definitely “Becky Stokes”. A late name change, perhaps? Can anyone with the 2013 reissue confirm whether poor Becky is now uniformly a member of the Stokes family?
(Update: thanks to Rachel Coverdale for pointing out that Becky is definitely a Stokes on the back cover of the 2013 edition!)
Mustiness Report: A delicate 3/10. My edition’s pages have the reassuring waft of an old, wooden wardrobe on a fresh summer’s morning.