Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Way to Sattin Shore by Philippa Pearce

First published 1983
Here it was, between a white stone cross on one side, and a plinth with a kind of toddler-angel on top, on the other. A plain tombstone, with a plain inscription. First of all: IN MEMORY OF JAMES TRANTER, and a date half a century earlier. That would be her grandfather, her father's father. Then, below: AND OF HIS SON ALFRED ROBERT TRANTER, and then the date of her own birth: the very day and month and year. On an impulse, Kate leant forward and traced with her finger the lettering of the name and the date -- her date.
Kate Tranter is the youngest member of her family. Her two brothers are rather older, and Kate is a lonely child, a little isolated within the family and reserved at school. She's curious about her dead father - he must be dead, the gravestone proves it - but her mother and grandmother are reluctant to talk about him. She found the grave on her own, and doesn't tell anyone that she visits it. Only Syrup knows, but being a cat, he doesn't give her away. As well as the mystery of the gravestone, there's the strange circumstances surrounding a letter which arrives for her grandmother, which disappears almost immediately and no-one will talk about it. Then one day the tombstone disappears, and with it all Kate's certainty about her father. A conversation with her brother adds a new piece to the jigsaw, though, a place called Sattin Shore where someone drowned. So Kate decides to visit this place for herself.

Despite her isolation, there's a lot of family life in this book. Both brothers introduce Kate to new experiences and, although Kate's mother can be loving and warm. But there's a darkness at the heart of the family: old Mrs Randall, Kate's grandmother, is cold and withdrawn, and exercises too much influence over her daughter. It is she who decides that Kate's father will not be mentioned, and that his children must forget all about him. She lives on the ground floor, next to the front door, and Kate is reluctant to even pass her partly-open doorway -- she's a brooding presence throughout the book, oppressive even at times of happiness, and a cause of family tensions. But if I make in sound like unalleviated misery, it's not. There's fun, too, in a sledging in the snow, a growing friendship at school, and the gradual sense of discovery about the past. And through it all, a purring golden thread, the presence of Syrup, rendered so beautifully that you can almost feel his thick fur, and his toes curling and uncurling in pleasure.

I can't recommend The Way to Sattin Shore too highly, it's told sensitively and with humour and Kate is one of those characters who stays in your mind, prickly and inquisitive and cautious all at the same time. Her inability to ask the questions that she needs answers to is compelling and completely convincing. She's a real person.