First loss, or, What I almost did on my summer holidays

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It’s January 31st, close to the start of a new year. And this is a new blog. So I’ve decided my first post should be inspired by something I didn’t quite get around to last August. Obviously.

Do you remember the first book that left you devastated? Not because it was miserable or terrifying, but simply because the story ended, and you couldn’t bear for the reading of it to be over?

For me, that book was The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. I remember picking it out from the school library display when I was about eleven. (By ‘library’, I mean two collapsible tables with some books on them. My primary school didn’t run to an actual room.) The photo below is a paperback version I was given later, but it has the same cover as the hardback I first read.

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Recently, I’ve been trying to figure out why the book had such an impact on me. The Dark is Rising, for those of you who haven’t come across it, is the second in a five book fantasy series of the same name. The books are tightly written and imaginative, based on Arthurian legend but set in twentieth century Britain, with a well-drawn cast of interesting and relatable characters. So far, so obvious. But, I had read lots of fantasy and fairy stories before I discovered Susan Cooper. My copies of the Narnia books were in shreds, and I loved The Princess And The Goblin (George MacDonald) too. So it wasn’t like I was discovering a new genre. Was the violence with which I fell in love with The Dark Is Rising to do with my age? Adolescent hormones affect your emotional engagement with real people. Why not with book characters too?

Still with me?

Wondering what this has to do with my summer holiday?

Well, if you’ve read the series, you’ll know that the last book, Silver on the Tree, is set in Wales. In August, we decided to take a short break on the north Welsh coast. I looked at a map of the area and I spotted nearby (as I thought) the towns around which the action is set: Aberdovey and Machynlleth. Even more exciting, I found the Bearded Lake; the lake from which the monstrous Afanc arises to torment Jane, one of the main characters:

‘It was wrong, this thing from the lake: malevolent, vicious, full of the festering resentment it had nursed through the centuries of some terrible nightmare sleep. She could feel its will groping for hers, just as the blind head groped through the air before her.’

That was it: we were going to explore the towns, visit the lake, and I would be able to experience for real the landscape I had imagined so often in my head….

Of course, we didn’t make it. I’m not very good at distances, and I didn’t realise that Conwy to Aberdovey is a two hour drive. Too hard to fit in when we were only there for three nights, and we had all those castle turrets to climb.

But never mind. Thinking about the books, thinking about Cooper’s evocative description of the landscape, was enough to recall the wonder I experienced back when I was eleven. In my head, I’ve already been there.