Ranulph is one of the survivors of a shipwreck, rescued by the inhabitants of one of the Islands off the coast of France and England. He is invited by Rachell Du Frocq to spend his recovery time at their farm. Why would Rachell invite a complete stranger into her busy life? after all she has a husband, five children, a servant and a farm to manage. This part of the story is one example of the ‘magic’ Goudge weaves into her novels. In Rachell’s case, she has had a ‘seeing’ — what we today might call a premonition — that this stranger is going to be instrumental in saving her farm, home and family life. Just one of the ‘mysteries’ in this novel, but somehow Goudge makes it work.
This was her first novel, and I have to confess the first time I tried to read it, I put it aside. This time, the second time around, this book has really caught me up into the setting, the personalities and the story itself. I read this book slowly so as to savor the wonderful language and play on description and characterization that Goudge does so well.
Her insight into human character is unparalleled (and how does she do it, I wonder? in this novel as in her others, she once again manages to unerringly put her finger on the vulnerabilities of the human heart):
“Psychology? The study of the mind. Put more simply a psychologist employs himself by finding out where people are being fools and why.”
“Does it interest you to see where people are being fools, Uncle Ranulph?”
“Enormously,” said Ranulph, “I like to get human beings under the microscope. I like the feeling of Olympian detachment which it gives me, and it is a delight to find that, idiotic as I am myself, others are frequently more so.”
Michelle, interested, sat up and cupped her chin in her hands. Her eyes, so dull all the morning, began to look alive again.
“Are we all idiots?” she asked.
“We are all quite, quite mad,” said Ranulph solemnly, “Some of us more so and some of us less so.”
Somehow E. Goudge weaves together the points of view of several of her characters into a story that makes sense, that works. Ranulph, who is tortured by the decisions of the past and despairs of ever being at peace. Andre, who seems to be failing at everything he has tried and who now stands to lose the farm of Bon Repos itself. Jacqueline (Rachell and Andre’s daughter), who is ‘priggish’ and who desperately needs to discover that there is value not only in the material things of this world and cleverness, but in simply being the person God created one to be. Colette, whose brush with death transforms a poor servant girl. The entrancing Island village market scene on Christmas Eve. The grumpy and obstinate grandfather who sees everyone else’s faults but his own (and who never hesitates to point them out). So many stories and yet the author is able to work them into a plot that comes together.
Although (naturally, being a Goudge novel), the pietism and superstition of the Island was also part of the story, it was portrayed within the hearts of the Islanders themselves among the legends and stories that had been passed down to succeeding generations. The charm of her writing is in the descriptive power of Goudge’s sense of place:
“They came down the last lane on to a flat white road winding across a stretch of common, and in front of them was the sea. This side of the Island was so entirely different from the Bon Repos side that it seemed a different country. Here there were no cliffs. Stretches of sand and grass, seal holly and feathery fennel, ran level with the beach. Little low white-washed cottages edged the road, their gardens full of veronica and tamarisk trees, and low rocks of rose-pink granite ran out into a sea of an intense blue. Nowhere else round the Island was the sea quite so blue as it was at L’Autel beach. Ranulph stopped, caught his breath and stared. Until today he had been too lazy to come to L’Autel. He had forgotten its magic. He had forgotten that any sea, anywhere in the world, could be so blue. “
I was sorry to finish this book! Disappointed with the affected romanticism of her novel “The Middle Window”, I was afraid to repeat the experience here, but I so enjoyed the multi-layered story within “Island Magic” that I was sad when I came to the end.
“They must not keep their father and mother and Lupin waiting, he said, and they must go early to bed in preparation for the morrow. The children, their thoughts turning to their stockings, submitted with a good grace and followed him up the gay ribbons of the streets, in and out of the old grey brooding houses that has seen so many Christmas Eves come and go, over the old cobbles that had spread themselves through the centuries beneath the feet of so great a multitude of children. Overhead the stars shone frostily brilliant in a clear sky, just as they had shone when the Island was only a great grey rock set in the hungry sea and far away in Bethlehem a Child was born.”