Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Lion of Sole Bay, reviewed by Jan Needle

Many times in my life, I’ve been floored by the alleged differences between books written for adults and children. The newish ‘genre,’ YA, only adds to my confusion. Take Julia Jones’s trilogy, which has now mysteriously grown to four parts, and will stop over my dead body. Here’s my simple test: hold up your hand if you preferred Treasure Island as an adult, or a child. Ditto the novels of Arthur Ransome. Or try it in reverse. How many of you loved Agatha Christie as a child and find her embarrassing as an adult? Right, experiments over. What I mean is this. Having just finished Jones’s The Lion of Sole Bay, I am confident that it is about nothing less than love and loneliness, and never mind the age labels. As were the first three.
   Julia’s child characters, let’s say, sprang originally from her reading of Ransome. His was a world of unthinking wealth and privilege that many readers can clearly never enter. But for me, as a child, this class ‘thing’ was never a problem. It was way beyond my life experience, but it just was. I was working class, they weren’t. But they did wonderful things and they sailed. I suppose I imagined John Walker had an accent just like mine. Wow!
   Julia’s characters live in a different world again. Some of them are dirt poor, without the benefit of what our Government so pathetically and offensively insists on calling ‘hard-working’ parents. Some of them, indeed, are in care, some of them have fragile mental health, some of them have mums and dads (or not) who are on the verge of going under. But she involves them in situations that are the backbone of the Ransome books. They interact, essentially, with each other. Adults range from the bizarre to the extraneous, but her children are on their own, and  unlike Ransome’s, have extremely subtle needs.
  Above all things, they know (although they don’t articulate it), that they need love. And Ms Jones understands, from the bottom of her soul, that love is help; and she turns the story screw to make that need grow greater all the time. Not in a melodramatic way at all, however. Julia’s stories tend to make me actually cry.

  The construct of The Lion of Sole Bay is extraordinary, and achingly simple. A boy called Luke, whom we know of old, is left to have a longed-for holiday alone with his father Bill while his extended and fragmented family go off abroad for their own ‘trip of a lifetime.’ Bill lives on an old fishing boat, and works in the local boatyard, where on the night he’s due to meet Luke, he actually meets a little girl called Angela. She is an emotional outcast, hanging on to a gang of older boys, with whom she manages to accidentally pull a shored-up boat down on to Bill, which comes very close to killing him.
The gang run off, but she stays.
  Angela is one of the school’s hopeless ones; friendless, apparently feckless, probably on the spectrum, a heavily-bullied dimwit, always in trouble, much despised. She is terrified of the police, but when she knows that they are coming, she cradles the injured man, and dares to hold his hand.

She has to run at last, of course. But learns later that Bill, now in intensive care, mistook her for an angel.
   Angela, known derogatorily as Ants because the other children (the nice, normal ones) like to pull her pants down in the playground to check for the insects that must be crawling in them because she is incapable of keeping still, has found her name at last, a name that she has subconsciously ached for, an identity that can feed her soul. Angel.

   Ants and Luke, however, are not the only damaged ones in this story. Alongside Bill’s boat, for some time, has lain a Dutch motor barge called Dree Vrouwen (Three Women) manned (irony) by a mad fascistic politician called Elsevier, her mentally ill follower Hendrike, and Hendrike’s thirteen year old daughter Helen.
  These three women have come across the North Sea to liberate the figurehead of a Dutch warship involved in the Battle of Sole Bay, in 1672. It is now the proud sign of a roadside pub at the head of the creek, but to Elsevier it is the material exemplar of an ancient crime.

  Her own planned crime – in her eyes, the reversal of an ancient wrong – can only be carried out on a certain tide. And Elsevier, although mad, is a great general (she thinks), and completely ruthless. She controls Hendrike with herbal potions, fungi, and illegal drugs. She controls Helen through blackmail (Helen loves her mother and must protect her). And she carries a gun.
  A November the Fifth party will be the perfect cover for the sea-going heist, and
 Luke, Angel, Helen are thus thrown together – to hate and mistrust each other roundly. Bill lies in hospital, while other adults are helpless and disbelieving. The North Sea, and the late autumn gales, are waiting hungrily. I’m telling you, they will be horrible.

  As well as the sea, Julia Jones understands the horror of the human condition, and how utterly cruel life can be. But she also understands redemption, inside out and backwards. And she is an absolute master (mistress? Ask Elsevier) of dramatic tension. Some scenes are more thriller than children’s story, but to categorise this book as either misses several points.

The children and the adults in this novel, this trilogy-plus, all need love. Their loneliness is awe-inspiring. With calmness and power, without a jot of sentimentality, Julia Jones gives it to them.
  Call it what you like. For me, its category is universal.