Sophie is shipwrecked in the English Channel on her 1st birthday, with her mother presumed dead, but she’s lucky enough to be found by scholar Charles. He raises her as his ward and they have a happy, if seriously unconventional, existence until the authorities intervene on her 12th birthday. With the orphanage beckoning, Sophie and Charles run away to France in the hope that her mother may be alive after all.
Rundell’s characterisation – which I thought was the weak point of her debut The Girl Savage – is much stronger here. Sophie and Charles are both excellent, and the relationship between them is very touching – Charles has to be right up there with Atticus Finch as one of my very favourite fictional father figures. The children Sophie meets in Paris are very well-portrayed as well. The writing style which showed promise in that first book is more developed now and is stunning at times – I read this a few months ago (but have only just got round to reviewing it), before it was longlisted for the Carnegie, but it was clear even then that this was likely to be a favourite for several awards. It’s beautifully written but never feels stilted. How about this for a description of a character?
Think of nighttime with a speaking voice. Or think how moonlight might talk, or think of ink, if ink had vocal cords. Give those things a narrow aristocratic face with hooked eyebrows, and long arms and legs, and that is what the baby saw as she was lifted out of her cello case and up into safety. His name was Charles Maxim, and he determined, as he held her in his large hands—at arm’s length, as he would a leaky flowerpot—that he would keep her.
The rest of the book is written in the same gorgeous style, and it’s married to a clever plot, lots of excitement, and one of the most wonderful climaxes for a long, long time. It’s also one that I think could open older readers’ eyes to the amount of amazing books out there today. This feels, in so many ways, reminiscent of classics like Noel Streatfeild and Joan Aiken that I’d put it towards the top of my list of books to hand to readers who haven’t read recent YA. An utterly heartwarming and uplifting book; I predicted when I first read it that this would win the Carnegie – and still think it should have done!
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