This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.
The Orchard on Fire was the first novel I read by Shena Mackay and I loved it. Childhood is popularly portrayed as a time of carefree innocence yet children are often haunted by worries dismissed as trivial by adults and sometimes beset by very real terrors they feel unable to confide, beautifully conveyed through the friendship of April and Ruby who live in a small Kent village in the 1950s. By telling her story through April’s fresh, often funny eight-year-old voice, Mackay vividly depicts both the fears and happy excitements of childhood.
April’s parents escape from their gloomy Streatham pub to take over the running of the Copper Kettle tea rooms. When April meets Ruby, they become best friends, forming an exclusive alliance against the rest of the world. Ruby valiantly contends with her bullying parents while fiercely protecting April against the inevitable teasing suffered by newcomers. While her parents struggle with their new business, April tries to cope with the unwelcome attentions of the seemingly respectable Mr Greenidge. Seeking refuge in their camp, writing letters in invisible ink and calling to each other with their secret signal, April and Ruby cement a friendship that seems unassailable.
Mackay has quite a story to tell, herself. Her first job was in an antique shop managed by Frank Marcus whose play The Killing of Sister George later became a ‘60s classic. Marcus encouraged Mackay with her writing, introducing her to André Deustch who published her first book when she was twenty. A young attractive woman, she found herself thrust into the literary limelight and fêted on the publishing party circuit. Now she prefers to avoid the razzmatazz of book promotion and has been described as ‘a publicist’s nightmare’.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?
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