I have just finished reading Eva Ibbotson’s book ‘Journey to the
I won’t write an actual review of JTTRS (though you’ve probably worked out by now that I liked it). It’s probably enough to say that it’s as close to a perfect children’s novel as you’re ever likely to read. The writing itself is a joy to behold. Ibbotson doesn’t go in for grandstanding purple prose or epic descriptions – she simply tells, in simple language, and the characters and places take on lives of their own. Lesser, more insecure writers (mentioning no names) lack this confidence and often hide behind hyperbole and visual fireworks. There’s no dodgy CGI in Eva Ibbotson.
One thing I noticed were some classic ‘Ibbotson riffs’ (that makes her sound like Jimmy Page, I know, but bear with me). I spotted certain parallels with some of her other books, especially ‘The Star of Kazan’, which I have also read multiple times. She definitely has favourite themes and motifs that she returns to. She has a thing for near-flawless heroines, the sweet, kind, innocent girl alone in the world; the enigmatic male stranger, perhaps gypsy or mixed-race; the penny-pinching, mealy-mouthed manipulating villains. These elements, which are often the mainstay of the airport novel or Mills & Boon romance, stop being clichés when she touches them and turn instead into gold. It’s almost as if she’s showing off – like an artist painting the Mona Lisa using cans of spray paint.
Of course, the familiar elements (which in any case are given new life) are outweighed by those that you will find nowhere else. But it is the execution that takes my breath away. The reader is transported to the Amazon rainforest with such speed and ease that I had to read it over and over to check – yes, it’s true, we get from a girls’ school in London to the city of Manaus in the first 27 pages. Not only that, but we know who everyone is and care about them deeply, AND about four different subplots have been subtly set up and the same number of mysteries are stirring. It’s a conjuring trick. And you don’t even notice it being performed because you’re enjoying yourself too much.
The language… I’m in awe of it. Some of the lines are so good I want to eat them. Right near the start, when the heroine (Maia) is setting off on her journey, and her classmates are terrified about what she might encounter in the Amazon, the sombre mood is captured with the line: ‘Piranhas and alligators were in the air.’ And then there is Maia’s stern black-clad governess, who looks ‘more like a nutcracker than a human being.’
Reading back it seems that I have started writing a review after all. Oh well, it was hard not to. This post was supposed to be about how envious I am of Eva Ibbotson, but sometimes a writer is so good that the only emotion I can feel is gratitude. Besides, there’s another good reason why I’m not envious of Eva Ibbotson. Because I’ve just read ‘Journey to the River Sea’ for the first time, while she, as the author, will never truly know what that’s like.