K M Peyton - Paradise House
Scholastic Books, £5.99
K M Peyton's website
Beware - contains spoilers!
Paradise House sees K M Peyton sticking to the historical novel genre she's followed for the last few years. Aimed at a younger readership than her Small Gains series, this story is set in (I think) Victorian England, with all the social constrictions that that implies. People moved in stratified social circles, but the one thing common to all was the horror of illegitimacy. Alice, the 11 year old heroine of the novel, is, it turns out, illegitimate. When the novel opens she is living a life of cloistered strictness. No one appears to like her much; she has no friends apart from Robin, the groom's son. Her father is remote and unfeeling. Her mother died when Alice was little.
We don't know when the novel opens that Alice is illegitimate, and neither does she. This could have been a very bleak novel indeed, given how illegitimacy was viewed. I do wonder, if K M Peyton had been writing this a few years ago, if bleak is how she would have written it, but this is a feel-good, Cinderella story. Alice is whisked from her bleak life to one in the bosom of a family. Her real father turns up, and Alice acquires another, a "proper" family. Fortunately for Alice, there is plenty of money. If she had been born to one of the servants rather than a member of the aristocracy, life would have been rather more tricky. Money then, as now, certainly makes some problems more tractable.
I found Alice's real father difficult to credit: if he's the loving father he appears in the second half of the book, I don't quite believe that he could leave his daughter utterly unvisited for years, explaining it away by simply apologising "My dear Alice! How lovely to meet you at last! All my fault, of course. I apologise deeply." Mrs Pinney, the housekeeper, doesn't think very highly of him for the way he's treated the children, but she appears to be in a minority. However, I don't think this book is really about portraying a realistic vision of Victorian society, although for the generation who will read this book, brought up when being illegitimate is normal, this book will open a window into a world when your entire future depended on whether or not your parents were married.
If you want to sit down, relax and be transported to another, less complicated world where life works out well in the end, then this is the book for you. Vintage Peyton it isn't, but it's still an interesting portrayal of a period relatively untouched by the horse story genre.
I can't finish this without at least mentioning the spectacularly pink cover. I don't know if the vaguely broderie-anglaise background to the title is meant to convey that the book is an historical, but if it is, it certainly passed me by. From the blurb, I was expecting a modern day racing story.