Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book has been on my "to read" list for about four years now, as has the whole The Dark is Rising series. because friends recommended it, or wrote good reviews of it.
My search became more urgent when a reviewer compared my children's books Of Wheels and Witches and The Enchanted Grove to the whole "The Dark is Rising" sequence, and suggested that it might have been an influence on my writing.
It couldn't have been an influence on me, because I hadn't read it yet, but there certainly are similar tropes in both my children's books -- children on a quest, getting separated and searching for each other, an older boy who is a bully, some getting captured by the villains and threatened by them. There is even a hair binding that comes undone causing one character to lose her pony tail. But my influence came more from Alan Garner and I wonder if Susan Cooper's did too. It seems that they did meet, and regarded each other as kindred spirits.
In the Good Reads page for the book there was a question about why the book was written in such an old-fashioned way, and so I watched out for that while reading it. As some people remarked, it could be because it was written over 50 years ago, and speech was different then. In the book the children wore "plimsolls", but by the time the Harry Potter books appeared, 30 years later, "plimsolls" had become "trainers", so that would probably have appeared old-fashioned even 25 years ago, when the Harry Potter books first appeared. I was particularly aware of that when I went to England in the 1960s, because I thought of "plimsolls" as marks on ships, and we called such footwear "tackies" (sometimes spelt "takkies"), both then and now -- the term is applied to any shoes with canvas uppers and rubber soles.
Some language would have appeared old-fashioned even in the 1960s -- I don't recall any children at that time referring to their male parent as "Father" with a capital F. But what really struck me as an anachronism was that one of the characters found two 50 pence pieces in his pocket, in a book published in 1965. Even in 1968, when the edition I read was alleged to have been published, though two of the new decimal coins were beginning to circulate, a 50p piece was not among them, they were still 10-bob notes. So if 10-bob notes miraculously changed into 50p coins, why did plimsolls not change into trainers? Or Father into Dad?
I recently re-read three of Alan Garner's children's books, and comparing his language to Susan Cooper's, I find his more terse and taut, which conveys a sense of urgency in the way it is written.
I was inspired to write my children's (and other fiction) by a conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in which they said that if they wanted to see more of the kind of stories they liked, they should have to write them themselves. And I liked stories by Charles Williams and Alan Garner. But it seems that Susan Cooper has also written the kind of stories I like, and all but two of them are waiting for me to read therm.
Her writings are not entirely new to me, however. Back in the 1960s I did read Mandrake by Susan Cooper, which was adult science fiction rather than children's fantasy. I was reading it on the train from London to Bournemouth at the very time Dr Verwoerd was shot, and it was in fact about an English version of the Verwoerdian dream, where a British prime minister decided that everyone had to go back to their "homeland", and enacted laws to force them to do so. I never saw another book by Susan Cooper in a bookshop after that, though I see she has written quite a lot, and I'm putting more on my "want to read" list.
I've spent some time commenting on the language in this review, but that's because I found little else to criticise, and because someone asked a question about it. And now I hope I'll be able to find the rest of the series and renew my acquaintance with the characters.