An Episode Of Sparrows reminded me of Ali Smith’s writing, devastating and optimistic in equal measure, putting faith in the “power of life” in the face of destruction. Initially marketed to adults, it is often read as a kids’ book, although it remains deeply rewarding at any age.
The story begins with two older sisters, the Chesneys, in a wealthy square overlooking a closed garden in west London shortly after World War II. There’s the stuffy and confident Angela who fills her days with her clubs and societies and the meek Olivia, who watches the activity of the nearby working-class Catford Street from their top-floor classroom, longing for the chaos and noise of the street children, the “sparrows” of the title. To Angela’s horror, they find someone has been stealing soil from the garden, and she vows to find out who and have them punished.
At length the narrative loops back three months to March to solve the mystery of who would steal soil – and whether it is stealing at all. Lovejoy Mason, a precocious and fastidious 11-year-old, lives with the Combies in a restaurant on what everyone calls the Street. Her mother, a singer, is absent for long stretches of the year and Lovejoy spends her free time exploring the ruins left by the Blitz. Snatching a packet of seeds, she is inspired to start a garden in the ruins, doggedly pursuing her task by any means, eventually enlisting the help of notorious 14-year-old gang leader Tip Malone. I loved every moment of this story, felt every one of Lovejoy’s successes and failures. I was as deeply invested in whether the grass seeds would sprout as whether Lovejoy’s mother would return to care for her, and really, the novel seems to be suggesting, they are two sides of the same coin. We experience her wonder as she learns about plants and gardening, a reminder that everyone has this capacity if it is nurtured. Lovejoy “had never before thought of colours”:
now she saw colours everywhere, the strong yellow of daffodils, the blue and clear pink – or hideous pink – of hyacinths, the deep colours of anemones; she was learning all their names; she saw how white flowers shone and showed their shape against the London drab and grey.
The characters are delightful. This is a novel that rewards traits that are usually seen as dysfunctional in an economic system that rewards productivity and compliance. It celebrates childhood and rule-breaking, art and creation for its own sake, sentimentality and what Lovejoy identifies as “that garden feeling”. On another day, all those things would irk me, but you either let it annoy you or you embrace it. Like Lovejoy, Vincent “George” Combie, the restauranteur, pursues his dream of a high-end establishment at any cost. But his pursuit of culinary transcendence is depicted as so worthy, particularly in one of the novel’s most spectacular scenes when Vincent cooks for a wealthy couple. “Why don’t people get things?” Lovejoy asks him. “Because they don’t want hard enough,” Vincent replies, and the novel doesn’t treat his answer as that of a petulant child. Olivia likewise is all too aware of her failings (she acknowledges that she’s been a “coward” for much of her life, in many ways the opposite of Lovejoy and Vincent), but eventually realises that her uncertainty is her strength. “I sometimes think,” Olivia says, and continues in her stuttering, hesitant way:
from watching, of course, because I am not experienced, I think experience can be a … block … Because if you think you know, you don’t ask questions… or if you ask, you don’t listen to the answers… Everyone, everything, each thing, is different so that it isn’t safe to know. You … you have to grope.
There’s a wonderful sense of time and place. Godden perfectly captures the atmosphere of recovery, of the first green shoots appearing in the rubble. Winter, Ali Smith writes in her seasonal novel of same title, is the season for “remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again,” and An Episode Of Sparrows takes place in the same moment of gathering yourself after a long battle and before the next one. It is a time of great potential – but one of the novel’s lessons seems to be that this can easily be squandered. On seeing one of the ruined churches finally cleared away for rebuilding, one character laments, “But it’s gone”:
Huts, steps, walls, bell, aeroplane notice had been swept away in their place was a big empty pit; where the rubble and marble had been was space. The steps in the Street sounded hollow in this emptiness and the wind … made a howling noise as it caught the open walls.
In its own way it’s as apocalyptic a description as the bombed ruins themselves. It reminds me of calls to rebuild economies and societies in ways that are better for the planet and our wellbeing after the devastating of the pandemic, calls that seem to be falling by the wayside as economies come roaring back and new threats distract. Time moves on; time buries the past. In Angela’s close-mindedness there are hints of the protectionism that would later express itself in Brexit and the post-pandemic world. “In the country where there is plenty perhaps one can fence,” the ever-prescient Olivia says of the walled garden, “but not here, in London, where there’s so little. It should be open.”
The story is told in hindsight, from someone in the future speaking to the participants of the episode it describes. It is a clever technique that builds tension and effectively conceals information until key moments, investing Lovejoy’s actions with even more power. There is of course plenty of beautiful writing about plants and gardens, street life and childhood. I was impressed by the focus of the narrative, which leaves no thread untied. In short, it is a perfect novel.
Gay rating: not gay, although gardens are always a little bit queer