Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Breath of Air, by Rumer Godden (review)

I found this book at the thrift shop last month and thought it might interest others.

This is Rumer Godden's novelization and updated version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. A bit of an "exercise," maybe--or what do they call it, a tour de force? As if some novelists were having a challenge among themselves--"what would you do with a Shakespeare play to turn it into something different but still the same?"

We've read so many of Godden's children's books that I wasn't sure how I was going to like her "adult" writing--and be a bit warned, there is a bit of necessary "adultness" in this story. Mostly I liked it...I think she drew on her experience in India in creating an imaginary island for her hero to be, planewrecked...on. And here and there there are telltale Rumer Godden phrases:

"He felt old and chilled. 'My feet must be wet,' said Mr. van Loomis. 'It's the dew on the hill,' but his feet had often been wet before. 'I must be getting old,' said Mr. van Loomis. That depressed him more."

Mr. van Loomis is Prospero--a Scottish industrialist who chucked it all for a tropical island, and built up his own little empire by using native labour and resources. (This becomes one of the issues of the book--who really owns the island, its people, and its wealth?)

She's also very creative about adapting Shakespeare's fairy and monster characters into something more human yet still recognizable. She describes the character Mario, based on the monster Caliban:

"McGinty came up. 'You the chap in charge of the light?' he asked. In the moonlight, which was beginning now to sift down over the sea and the reflected light of the lamp, Mario looked a monster....clumsy, childish, with his thick low forehead and mat of hair and shining dark eyes."

The fairy creature Ariel becomes a restless young native servant who is entranced by ideas of the outside world he has never seen, and longs for escape.

And Miranda is still Miranda, except that she's now named Charis. She has grown up on the island and has never seen a European man except for her father and the half-Spanish Mario. Until Valentine Doubleday shows up...

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