My first entry for the Europa Challenge Blog, 2014! Last year I was overly ambitious and bombed spectacularly at getting many Europa titles read, this year I am going for "underly" ambitious, which may work better.
Although I had the Europa Challenge blog in mind as an incentive, I actually didn't come across this title through the usual Europa channels. I was listening to an NPR show that featured Nancy Pearl of Book Lust fame, because I'd been alerted to the fact that one of my favorite authors had been chosen off her bookshelf for her Picks from the Past feature. That book was The Cold Cold Ground, by Adrian McKinty, but I then stayed tune to hear what else she might have selected. A Long Way From Verona was the next selection.
I've heard Jane Gardam praised in many quarters, and in fact she seems to be a Europa favorite, as many of her titles are in print here in the U.S. in their editions, but for some reason, I'd been a bit scared off by her. I think I had the impression that these books would be odd in a British sort of way that I can find off-putting. Don't ask me why. At any rate, Nancy Pearl's mini review of this book didn't sound like that, so I thought, why not give it a go?
Although I didn't learn this till after reading it, A Long Way From Verona seems to have been marketed in England, where it first came out in 1971, (reissued in the U.S. by Europa in 2013) as a middle school or young adult novel. The protagonist and narrator is thirteen as she recounts her tale, and twelve when the story opens. That said, it didn't really occur to me that it wasn't conceived as an adult novel--there is definitely no "writing down" about it.
Jessica Vye tells us that she is not quite normal, partly due to a traumatic experience she had when she was nine. This incident bestows upon her the mantle of "writer" at an early age, which she seems to find rather appalling. She doesn't seem to find the fact that she is living her young adulthood in the greater trauma of World War Two traumatic at all in comparison, though the area she lives in on the English coast is subject to bombing raids and children carry their gas masks along with them as a matter of course. (It strikes me now that there are some similarities between Nancy Pearl's first pick, The Cold Cold Ground and this book, as the former tells of being a policeman in Belfast during the peak of the Troubles, when the police checked under their cars for bombs every morning in a similar routine way.)
A Long Way From Verona could well be titled "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl". Jessica's family are newcomers to Cleveland Sands, as her father has rather belatedly decided to become a minister, and her mother is adapting to this role the best she can, which from Jessica's viewpoint is not very well. As Jessica herself says, she is not very popular, but she does at least have a few stalwart friends, though many of her adventures seem to take her off by herself. Although this is in many ways a funny book, there is a very clear portrait of the way a writer may be slightly at odds with the world as it is at all times, and even from a young age. No one does really quite understand her, although she is lucky in finding one Miss Philemon early on, who proves an ally. There is a very precise understanding in the book of how experience works itself through a young person inarticulately, and comes out somewhere unexpected, baffling not just the people around them, but even that person herself.
I look forward to reading more Jane Gardam and seeing how her "adult" novels compare.
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