The quicksilver landscape of childhood

Recently, I read Jane Gardam’s The Hollow Land; it’s unclassifiable, ageless, and I loved it. It is listed in the front of her book as a children’s story, and it won the 1983 Whitbread Children’s Book Prize, but if ever there was a book that illustrated how blurred the line between adult and children’s literature is, this is it. Probably because of the success of Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, Europa editions has republished the book, and it now sits comfortably in the adult side of the bookstore aisle, making it accessible to adult readers; unfortunately, that may mean that kids may not know of it, and consequently that they might miss the chance to experience its wonder while they are able to have childhood’s particular understanding of it.

Whatever age you come to it, though, this is one of those books that changes the way you see the everyday world.

The premise of the story is deceptively simple. Two young boys, city bred Harry Bateman and country bred Bell Teasdale, meet when the Batemans rent a vacation home, Light Trees, in the Cumbrian countryside; through a series of linked stories and shifting perspectives we witness how their lives, as well as the lives of their families and those of the locals, connect and become intertwined. The boys understand intrinsically that their lives are deeply informed by the natural world; Bell has known and accepted that all his life, while Harry, just discovering it, embraces it for the first time, and for always.

The boys’ lives are filled with stories, the kind of stories that you hear as a child (especially if you manage to be quiet and unobtrusive, at least for awhile); the gossip, the lore, of your family, and your neighbours, of the things that are taking place, or have taken place, in your piece of the world. These are the stories told about, and sometimes by, people who would be considered eccentric if they lived somewhere else, but who inhabit your everyday world or who visit it briefly, and who are, therefore, just themselves. Bell and Harry’s world is peopled with such characters: the inscrutable Egg Witch, the gloriously garrulous chimney sweep, Kendall, and, of course, the famous Londoner interloper, The Household Word. Reading of the boys’ adventures, such as the perilous but beautiful Icicle Ride and Harry’s curious, liberating visit to the Egg Witch, feels like opening a cut paper picture book wherein the simple is transformed into the magical, and childhood, that half remembered place that we carry with us, is alive again, in all its mysterious complexity.

All children are explorers, both accepting of and intent on learning the secrets and truths of the landscape, natural and human, that they inhabit, often wondering at what they discover, catching a glimpse of some truth that they can’t name or explain. What is remarkable about The Hollow Land is that it offers us the opportunity to remember that, and it reminds us all that we are still on that journey.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

TS Eliot

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