Drifting Away, on More Than One Level: The River at Green Knowe

The last Green Knowe book had left Tolly and his great-grandmother with enough money to take a nice long vacation—but not quite enough to afford to leave their ghost-ridden house empty during their absence. To cover that expense, they rent the house out to two mildly eccentric women: Dr. Maud Biggin and Miss Sybilla Bun.

Dr. Biggin is writing a, uh, scholarly book about giants who lived in England prior to the arrival of normal sized humans (let’s just leap past this), and Miss Bun just wants to feed everybody. Despite the need for peace and quiet for scholarship, and perhaps because of Miss Bun’s need to feed everyone, they decide to invite three children to stay with them during the holidays: Dr. Biggin’s niece, Ida, and two refugee children, Oskar and Ping. Fortunately, the rest of the book is mostly about them, and their exploration of The River at Green Knowe.

It’s not clear why Ida needs to spend the summer away from her home, except perhaps to have the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine, but Oskar and Ping most definitely need a home, any kind of home, even one where the adults more or less leave the children to their own devices when not feeding them, and even then. Oskar’s father was killed by the Soviets after expressing the heresy that nothing but thoughts are real. As a result, Oskar spends his free time creating little wax images of Nikita Khrushchev and sticking pins into them; the kid really needs the outdoors. Boston does not outline Ping’s story in this book, but the way that no one can be bothered to say his real name (it’s not Ping) and his meticulous, almost over careful politeness and general care speak for themselves.

Having taken in the children, the two adults more or less ignore them—Dr. Biggin, after all, has a book to write, and Miss Bun has cooking to do. Luckily, this being Green Knowe, and in particular, this house being next to a river, the children soon find plenty to do exploring.

It soon becomes clear that a good deal of this book is mostly author Lucy Boston’s chance to speak rapturously about the nearby river (the River Great Ouse) and everything on it, except for tourists. She’s not fond of tourists. Neither are the kids. This rather begs the question of exactly why, then, Boston would fill this book with rapturous poetic description after rapturous poetic description of the kind typically designed to lure unsuspecting tourists to the river. Maybe she was hoping that they would drown in it.

Anyway, apart from rapturous river descriptions, this book has another theme: orphaning and displacement. Not only are the children, for all practical purposes, without parents and largely rootless, but so are or were many of the creatures they encounter on the river: a little baby swan, a giant in a treehouse, a tree that can cross its roots which turns out to be another giant, and the horses, so rootless they can fly away.

Granted, the first giant fled to the river not just to find a home, but because he is sick of money, or rather, the endless chase for and fascination with it. He’s even built a hidden tree house to ensure that no one will come after him for rent money, on the basis that a house on the ground will be easily found, and a house in the trees less so. He also lives on raw food, including raw fish—something that disgusts Ida even after the giant points out that sea lions eat raw fish and love it. (No one mentions sushi.) He probably shouldn’t have worried: the second giant notes that, in general, adults and girls never see him, and dogs just bark at him; cats, boys, and babies are a bit more observant. (Ida feels ashamed about this, even though she’s just demonstrated the truth of this; it’s one of the few clear gender distinctions that Boston makes in the book.) But the very temporary nature of that treehouse, along with the ongoing changes in the river, only emphasize the theme of uncertainty and displacement and change.

The real twist, however, comes later, when the children make a midnight journey out to an island on the river and encounter flying horses (they flee at the sound of fire trucks, which is understandable), and another adventure where Oskar shrinks himself down to two inches, absolutely delighted by the experience, and—

Ok, time for a bit of honesty here.

In about five years of blogging for Tor.com—wow, has it really been that long? Apparently—I have diligently read through each and every book that I’ve posted about on the site. Even those I hated. Even the one that made absolutely no sense and featured people fighting chocolate, where I was left going, uh, how on earth am I going to blog about this?

And then I came to this book.

Guys, I tried, really, I tried.

But I kept drifting off and even falling asleep, even when I thought that maybe, trying to listen to it while riding my electric trike might work. No. (Which, let me tell you, added a particular bit of excitement to the riding experience. Never fall asleep while riding an electric trike is my new motto in life.)

So, after my fifth attempt to listen to the chapter where Oskar turns into a two-inch creature and still drifting off—this after having to relisten to several other chapters since my mind kept wandering off and missing large bits—and after being unable to focus even during a chapter with a great river flood that promised some excitement, I gave up.

I really don’t know what the problem was. It might have been the audiobook format. Generally, with the books for these posts, I read the print version, curling up somewhere and taking notes, but in this case, the library didn’t have an available version, so audiobook it was. The narrator’s voice is slow, and soothing, and slow and….yeah.

But that said, this is hardly the first book I’ve chatted about here that I encountered through the audiobook version. So I don’t think that’s it. It can’t have been the sudden entrance of clearly magical things: I was expecting that from the first book in this series, and, after all, pretty much every book I’ve blogged about here (except for the Heyer reread) has contained a sudden entrance of a clearly magical thing. So that can’t be it, either.

It might have been the way the book is structured: as I mentioned, it has the unifying themes of displacement and orphanage, but what it doesn’t really seem to have is a plot. Rather, it’s a series of vignettes, here and there, connected only by the great flowing river. There’s no real sense of a goal or even a journey. And for all the sense of the ancient history of the river, everything feels temporary. Even the magical flying horses.

Or maybe it’s just me.

But in any case, here we are: five years of this, and we encountered the one book I just couldn’t finish. Fortunately, the next book in the series was available in print, and turned out to be more engrossing, if less overtly magical. Gorillas, coming up next.

(I will also be skipping Enemy at Green Knowe, another book in this series that my library only has in audiobook format, in case the audiobook is the issue.)

Mari Ness feels kinda guilty about failing everyone here, but, gorillas next week. That should count for something.


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