Penelope Lively began her career as a writer for children, with the publication of Astercote (my review) in 1970. She continued to write for children up to the end of the 20th century, before turning entirely to adult books in the 21st. This, to my mind, is a shame, because her children's books are awfully good! Not least among them is today's Timeslip Tuesday book, A Stitch in Time (1976).
Maria is the dreamy only child of distant parents who make little effort to truly engage with her. They aren't bad parents--after all, they are taking her on a seaside vacation away from London to a rent house in Dorset, near the famous fossil cliffs of Lyme Regis (where Mary Anning made her discoveries). But still, Maria is used to being alone with her thoughts.
The house where Maria is staying is a Victorian period piece, and the past seems particularly close to the present. She begins to hear things that aren't there--the creak of a swing, the barking of a dog. When she sees the sampler embroidered by a Victorian girl named Harriet whose home it was, she begins to wonder, and worry, about what happened to that long gone girl...until on an expedition to the cliffs past and present collide, to give Maria a glimpse of a day long ago, when tragedy struck...or maybe not.
And in the meantime, Maria grows fascinated with fossils, and makes her first real friend--the boy staying in the house next door, who becomes her companion in exploration. As the days pass, she grows in confidence, until even her parents are forced to re-evaluate her as a person in her own right. To a large extent, the book is a character study of this lonely, intelligent girl, and it was lovely to see her change as the story progressed.
Up until the climax, which lasts only a page or two, the timeslip element is somewhat understated--more echoes of the past, than traveling to and from it. Even the pivotal scene has a dream-like quality. But the past is present enough enough so as to make this an intriguing mystery--like Maria, the reader (me at least) becomes more and more anxious for Harriet....
This isn't one for those who like Exciting Plots, but I'd say it's pretty much a must read for quite, bookish, imaginative girls, who will enjoy it lots.
I myself enjoyed it quite a bit because I've actually been to the very beach Maria so enjoyed exploring. Here are the boys and I enjoying a beautiful March day--the fossil cliffs of mudstone are (sort of) visible on the right.
I wouldn't let the boys scramble on the cliffs, which are indeed very dangerous looking, but the beach was littered with bits of the fossil-bearing mudstone, which we happily cracked open, and we came home with a number of scrappy ammonite fossils, even though we failed to find our own ichthyosaur.
And even though the weather didn't cooperate that first day, we had a lovely time, and I would love to go back someday now they are older--sadly, they were too young to really remember it.
We stayed in Charmouth, right next to the beach, at a lovely bed and breakfast called Swansmead. Here's the view of the beach from our window.
Reading A Stitch in Time, with all its lovely references to the fossils (they ever are included in the Victorian sampler that give the book its title) brought it all back...