Saturday, January 12, 2008

Book Review: An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden

I am very pleased to welcome Will Duquette as a guest blogger. I have been reading Will's book reviews for some time as his blog, The View from the Foothills and always trusted his bookish insights. Very recently Will and his entire family converted to Catholicism and he has been looking at everything closely through that Catholic lens. I think you will enjoy this review as much as I did, though I must admit that I am prejudiced as Godden is a favorite author and An Episode of Sparrows one of the first books of hers that I came to love.

(I would like to mention, for anyone who enjoys Godden's writing, I am currently podcasting China Court over at Forgotten Classics.)

An Episode of Sparrows, by Rumer Godden

I read Godden’s In This House Of Brede some while back, at the behest of a whole bunch of people, and found that they were Not At All Mistaken. It’s a fabulous book. Since I’ve been on the lookout for more Godden, but she simply isn’t in the bookstores I frequent.

The other day we were dropping some kids’ books off at the library and I had a wild flash of inspiration: why not try the library? They’ve got books, right? They have books that are no longer in print, right? They’ll have something, won’t they? For me, this was (I blush to confess) a radical thought. But in I went, and to the stacks I hied myself, and yea, verily, they had three or four Goddens, of which this is one. All of them were in library bindings, so there were no blurbs to read; so I picked this one more or less at random, opened to the first page, and read:
The Garden Committee had met to discuss the earth; not the whole earth, the terrestrial globe, but the bit of it that had been stolen from the Gardens in the Square.
And I said to myself, “Yes, I think this will do.” And I took it home, and it did.

The story begins in the once posh confines of the Square, but it mostly takes place in the adjoining London neighborhood of Catford Street, a poor street, though proud, a street which is always grimy and in which almost nothing grows except children. The war is but recently past, and many lots up and down the street are filled with mounds of rubble, the site of the “camps” of gangs of older boys; and in one sits the local Catholic church, a temporary structure whose interior is punctuated with the stumps of the pillars and walls of the old church destroyed in the bombing.

At one spot on Catford street is a restaurant called “Vincent’s”; and in a hired room at the back lives a little girl named Lovejoy, the daughter of a traveling lounge singer, who has more or less been abandoned to the care of Mr. and Mrs. Cobbie. And this, really, is her story. It’s the story of Lovejoy’s search for Beauty in Catford street, her passionate and devoted and extravagant and persevering attempt to create a thing of beauty; and along the way she discovers something about Truth and Goodness as well (and receives not a little Grace in the bargain).

This is a very different book than In This House Of Brede, less deep (or perhaps merely less overtly deep), and I found it a little slow at the beginning; but I think it’s going to stick in my memory.

Sparrows was published in 1955, and although Godden did not convert to Catholicism until 1968 this strikes me as a deeply Catholic book. Although Catholicism is known for its creeds and dogmas and liturgies and obligations, it should never be forgotten that the Church (and Christianity in general, of course) is primarily about knowing Christ, not as an academic subject, but as a person, an individual, who loves us and who reaches out to us before ever we reach out to him. And though this is completely unstated in the text of Godden’s novel, nevertheless this is what we see in Lovejoy’s search for beauty, and in the various incidents along the way: Christ reaching out, through the parish priest (a largely unseen presence); through Tip Malone, leader of one the gangs, who Lovejoy draws into her work; through a cheap plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. And in the end there is, allegorically, death, purgatory–and the resurrection to come, though, fittingly, the latter is (though certain) still to come when the last page is turned.

I find, from a glance at Wikipedia, that Godden kept writing right up to her death in the late ’90’s, and has a surprisingly large body of work; at the rate at which I’m finding them, I expect it will take me quite a few years to work my way through them all.

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