The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

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Reviewed by Lory Widmer Hess

A witch becomes a friend. A pool of blood turns out to be blackberry juice. A theft turns into a gift, and a surly city girl into a contented farmer’s wife. A monumental quarrel is averted by a child’s adroit intervention, while threats from the outside world are repelled by native cunning and the right dose of bad weather.

This is the magic of the Hollow Land, the ancient mine-riddled region of Cumbria about which Jane Gardam wrote with great warmth and affection in her 1981 book by that name. Now reissued by Europa Editions, this is a long-lost treasure that should be hailed with joy by Gardam’s fans, as well as those who have yet to experience the pleasure of the author’s many fine qualities.

The Hollow Land is one of those books that is hard to put into a box. Not quite a novel, it’s composed of nine stories that are linked by setting and characters, but which could also be read independently. The point of view shifts about, and often there are wide gaps of time between one story and the next, so that in only 160 pages the book covers more than 20 years. It’s been labelled as a children’s novel (and won the Whitbread Prize for this category upon its original publication), but although it has memorable child characters and captures their perspective with vivid accuracy, it’s equally relevant and enjoyable for adults.

But just forget about all such trivial and unimportant pigeonholing, open yourself to the storytelling of a master, and you’ll be taken to a place you will never forget. The basic “frame” story concerns two families, one of native Cumbrian farmers and one of London-based visitors, who become friends and longtime neighbors. The youngest boys in each family, Bell and Harry, feature in several of the episodes, with adventures ranging from the irresistibly thrilling dangers of mine exploration, to an enchanting “icicle ride,” to encounters with the “Egg Witch” and the “Household Word,” who in very different ways offer obstacles to be overcome, and sometimes embraced.

As in her other works, Gardam moves effortlessly between many different shades of emotion, blending them into a rich tapestry of human life and relationships. Always an intelligent and subtle writer, she conveys much through few words, and often the most through what is left unsaid, the spaces between words and incidents. Bubbling throughout is her pervasive sense of humor, which often plays on the town-and-country, north-and-south divide—but with sympathy and understanding for both sides. Here’s the local chimney sweep (who also keeps the fish and chip shop) inviting the London family out for a bit of fishing:

“Isn’t it too wet?” James said doubtfully. “Wet is what’s needed for trout,” said the sweep.

“They’ll catch pneumonia,” said Mrs. Bateman fussing round in a clutched-up dressing-gown to get the sweep a cup of coffee.

“Not at all,” he said. “Never int’ world. I never yet met a trout with pneumonia. These lads tell me they like the thought of fishing every time they come in my shop. It happens that there’s this day free, people not being over-fond of having their chimneys swept with dampness about.”

The dampness flung itself against the kitchen windows like tidal waves. A tempest of wind shrieked.

“I think I ought to do some work,” said James. “It’s a chance, a day like this. I’ve got exams you see.” He slunk back into the bedroom and his friends kept well out of the foreground too.

“I’ll come,” said Harry.

“No you will not,” said his mother. “You can’t swim.”

“Oh, it’ll not come to that,” said Kendal. “We just wade. Only deep places is whirlpools and once in whirlpools swimming’s of little advantage.”

Indeed, The Hollow Land is often a place of danger and difficulty, and not everyone comprehends its rare beauty or connects with its elusive spirit. But those who do may discover how ancient powers of strength and endurance can find their way into the modern world, if we have the courage to recognize and accept them. It’s an experience that any reader of any age can have, thanks to this small but splendid book.

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Lory Widmer Hess blogs about her reading journey at The Emerald City Book Review.

Jane Gardam, The Hollow Land (Europa Editions: New York, 2015). 978-1-609452469, 160 pp., paperback.

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