Blasts from the Past: The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay (1995)

Cover imageThis 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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17 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay (1995)”

  1. It’s interesting trying to work out just what makes a book so special. I too read this years ago, adored it, pressed copies onto others, then retained happy memories of it. It is more than a ‘good read’ it meets you in a special place, takes you on a journey of connection and nostalgia, then leaves the better for the experience.
    Read and enjoy.

    1. Pleased to hear from a fellow fan! I think nostalgia may be some of it, at least for me. I’m quite a bit younger that Mackay but old enough for the world she portrays so vividly to have a certain familiarity.

  2. I keep meaning to read this as I like Shena MacKay and I live in Streatham (even though they quickly leave for Kent 🙂 ) I always think the promo tours etc must be exhausting, I’m not surprised she avoids them if she can.

    1. I’m sure you’d love her writing. I’d recommend her short stories, too. I feel so sorry for authors having to go on the road as they do. Many, I’m a sure, would prefer to be at home writing their next book.

  3. How interesting. This was one of those books which, despite its being on my bookshelf, I had never read. Now it seems to have disappeared. It looks as if I may have to find it.

  4. Child narrators can be so difficult to pull off successfully, but it sounds like author gets it just right. Lively and amusing without feeling cliched. That’s a lovely cover too.

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