I am, as I write this, knee deep in The Dark Is Rising Read-a-thon, and frankly I am having a whale of a time. Today’s post is a review of the first book in the series, Over Sea Under Stone. The book which turned me into a reader. Regular visitors to this blog will know that this book has a special place in my heart. I have read it multiple times, and each time I get as much joy as I did the first time I read it. My childhood copy is now so battered it wouldn’t hold up to another read, so I read the beautiful Folio Society editions The Delightful Mr F bought for me.
Over Sea Under Stone is set in the fictional Cornish fishing village of Trewissick. Here we meet Simon, Jane and Barney Drew, siblings on holiday with their family, and most importantly, their Great-Uncle Merry. On a rainy day the three children explore Grey House, rented for the summer by their parents. They come across an ancient manuscript detailing a map to the hiding place of King Arthur’s grail. Very quickly they realise they are in danger as some very nasty people are after the map too. Confiding in their Great-Uncle they learn about the eternal battle between the Light and the Dark and the importance of the grail in that struggle and how their Great Uncle has also been looking for the map. With the help of Merry, they set out to solve the clues and find the grail.
I particularly like the Drew family in this book. In most children’s literature the author has to dispense with the adults in order for the children to have an adventure, or the adults are utterly vile. In this, the Drew family are very normal. Mum and Dad are kind and fair, and Cooper didn’t have to bump them off to free up Simon, Jane and Barney to treasure hunt. The whole development of the plot takes place inside the normal confines of life for the children, which makes it feel very plausible.
The whole story is one of contrasts. On the one hand we have a beautiful English fishing village, in the height of a glorious summer, and on the other we have a real feeling of fear, claustrophobia and darkness all around. Susan Cooper is adept and weaving these two things together, the heat of the day beating down, whilst the proximity of the Dark crushing the children with the weight of its presence. Reading the final few chapters in bed, in the dark, with Storm Desmond raging outside, made the whole thing distinctly unnerving, and I remember as a child reading those chapters and realising for the first time that some people appear nice, but are actually very unpleasant indeed. This is such a wonderful book, written with real subtly. Long before Harry, Ron and Hermione hunted Horcruxes, the Drews were looking for the holy grail, and dare I say it? I think I will, for all of JK Rowling’s wonderful plotting and clever word play, Cooper’s world is far more menacing and hence rewarding, because it is easy to believe that one summer’s day you too could find a treasure map.