One of the very early posts on this blog (almost exactly two years ago) was about Stella Gibbons 'Nightingale Wood' which had just been reissued by Virago. I loved it and was desperate to read more of her work (it’s what puts the ‘Desperate’ in desperate reader) at the time it was no easy matter, a re-read of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ wasn’t really what I was after and the other alternatives I found – an old copy of ‘The Woods In Winter’ lurking in the stacks of the library and an affordable second hand copy of ‘White Sand and Grey Sand’ didn’t really hit the spot. At the time I felt they were dated and couldn’t find the magic.
In the last few weeks the first Vintage reprints have appeared with a whole lot more titles in the background (I’m not sure if some of them are print on demand or something else – I will be finding out) and my impressions of Gibbons are changing again. When I read ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ donkey’s years ago I quite liked it but nothing deeper than that, it’s probably long past time to read it again, meanwhile ‘Nightingale Wood’ was just such a charming fairy tale and was so exactly what I wanted to read at the time that anything else would always have been second best.
I have three new Gibbons to play with ‘Starlight’, ‘Westwood’, and ‘Conference at Cold Comfort Farm’. I started with ‘Starlight’ – medium length, intriguing premise, and an irresistible cover. Two elderly and impoverished sisters are living in a rented room in deepest Highgate. It’s the sixties but there are still scars from the war all around. The worst thing about poverty is that there is no security – the house is sold to a rackman – a dreadful, sinister, figure who sets about making the place comfortable for his wife to move in.
Mrs Pearson is her husband’s one weak spot – his love has an obsessive quality, and she is clearly not well – something to do with nerves. The sisters are safe as long as they don’t upset Mrs Pearson but Mrs Pearson is increasingly erratic and the houses inhabitants begin to think she’s possessed by an evil spirit. That’s pretty much how the blurb on the back runs, but somehow I didn’t expect it to be so literal – there is an evil spirit.
I’m almost sorry that I didn’t save this book for a couple more weeks until autumn really starts, this felt like the perfect not quite ghost story for lengthening evenings, very atmospheric and suitably chilling. There’s been quite a lot more fuss about ‘Westwood’ but I think that ‘Starlight’ is a cracking little book. The characters feel true; Gibbons ear for dialogue is remarkable, she can pull the humour out of a situation without losing an overall sense of menace and through it all there’s her trademark love of nature and natural beauty. She’s never too busy to describe a sunset or the sensation of walking through a crisp and lovely winters evening and I love that because it’s an obsession that I share.
There’s much more going on than I’m prepared to share here – you have to read it for yourself. This isn’t the very best book I’ll ever read but it’s made me want more Gibbons and soon, when I’m finished with the three I have now I’ll be waiting patiently for the rest to become available.