The Serpentine Cave (1997): Jill Paton Walsh

★★★½

There’s always a frisson of excitement when you come across a ‘new’ book by an author you like. Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels is one of my all-time favourite novels, as many of you will probably know, and so I was excited to come across The Serpentine Cave, which I’d never heard of before. It’s very different in spirit – a tale of quiet, private truths rather than the epic resonances of Knowledge of Angels – but it’s a moving tale of a woman trying to piece together her identity from the fragments left behind on her mother’s death. Marian has always defined herself in opposition to her mother Stella. While artistic Stella moves through life like a whirlwind, bringing chaos and uncertainty, ignoring bills and flying in the face of convention, Marian lives modestly, to balance out by her own placidity her mother’s turbulent progress. When Stella has a stroke, Marian leaves her home and her job in Hull and comes down to the rambling house near Cambridge where her mother lives. Presently her two grown-up children, Toby and Alice, join her from London. They come to nurse, but a different kind of duty soon falls on their shoulders: that of sorting out, paying off, tidying up the detritus of a life suddenly snuffed out. For Marian, this is also a time of coming to terms with her past.

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Knowledge of Angels: Jill Paton Walsh

★★★★★

This year I’m trying to reread some of the books I already own, as well as discovering new ones. It was only a matter of time before I returned to this brilliant novel, which I’ve adored ever since I read it in the Lower Sixth. Of course, opinions on books are very subjective, because the way we respond is affected so deeply by our own beliefs, memories and interests. For me, very few books come close to perfection. This is one of them. Brace yourselves for superlatives.

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