Astercote, by Penelope Lively, for Timeslip Tuesday

Astercote, by Penelope Lively (1970), was her first published book and her first book for children.

More than six hundred years ago, the village of Astercote was destroyed by the Black Death, and it lay abandoned as a forest grew up around it. But it was never forgotten by the residents of the newer village that was built nearby, and the forest around Astercote is forbidden ground, grimly defended by the farmer that owns it.

Mair and Peter Jenkins are newcomers to this village, and know nothing of Astercote. But when they follow their dog into the forest, they meet a strange man named Goacher who seems to live more in the past than the present. They return to visit him, and he shows them the site of Astercote, and the treasure that he guards--a golden chalice from the long gone church, that protects the modern people from suffering the same fate as the old village.

Astercote is not entirely gone--those with eyes to see, and ears to hear, like Mair, can sense its shadows, and hear the church bells still ringing. And the story of the plague still casts a shadow as well. When Goacher and the chalice are found to be missing, the village is cast into a panic--without doubt,the plague will return...and so, as people begin to fall ill, their conviction grows that doom has struck, and nothing modern doctors say will convince them otherwise. Only the return of the chalice can set things to rights.

This is Timeslip Light (almost so much so as to not be fantasy at all). The echos of Astercote do travel through time--Mair half-sees glimpses of the old village and its people, and she's not alone in hearing the bells. But no one actually visits another time directly. Instead, the tension of past and present comes from the memory of the horror of the Black Death, and the mass hysteria that grips the modern village when it seems it has returned.

It's atmospheric as all get out--the sense of place and the sense of history are incredibly powerful. There are moments that are genuinely eerie, contrasted nicely with moments in the real world that are more wry and even amusing. The efforts of the villager to thwart news reporters, for instance, made me chuckle.

I enjoyed this one lots; it's not an all time favorite, but it's well worth reading.

The cover shown on left is the version that made it into American libraries--it is awful! Who would ever want to read that? In contrast, I love the English stained glass looking cover (I'd definitely pick that one up), and the most recent cover, up at top, is at lest unobjectionable, although it's a bit fuzzy.

1 comment:

  1. This book frightened the socks off me the first time I read it. And the cover I had was even worse than the American cover you have - watery and boring. I guess the idea of the story didn't adequately scare the cover artists.


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