The Greenstone Grai by Amanda Hemmingway
Voyager (UK) TRADE: ISBN 0007153864 PubDate: 05/04/04
Review by John Berlyne
496 pgs. List price £12.99
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Writing as Jan Seigel, Amanda Hemmingway has achieved much (and well deserved) critical acclaim for her recent trilogy comprising Prospero’s Children, The Dragon Charmer (See Review) and Witch's Honour (See Review) (released in the US as The Witch Queen). I’m sure some interview somewhere tells of why she chose to write under that pseudonym, but to me the reason is irrelevant. Hemmingway is such a cultured writer, and has such a distinctive, evocative and beautiful style, that I feel I’d know her work whichever name she wrote under.
The Greenstone Grail, her latest novel, and one that begins a new trilogy, is a pleasure and treat. It opens late one night with a transient young woman alighting from a lorry that she’s thumbed a lift from. Uncomfortable with the advances of the driver, she gets out and finds herself in some rural village she doesn’t know. Though neither vagrant nor runaway, the woman has followed a compulsion to somehow shift her circumstances, to get away. Hemmingway hints to the reader that perhaps this arrival is not entirely random, rather it has been guided, - propelled rather than compelled. But by what?
The woman carries with her a newborn baby son and rapping on the door of a secluded cottage, she finds succour with the occupant. Bartlemy Goodman might even have been expecting her.
Flash forward some years and we learn more. The boy, Nathan has grown up to become a plucky young teenager and his mother, Annie now lives in the village. Her welcoming mentor, old Bartlemy, now acts as the child’s guardian. Into this set up, Hemmingway weaves her gentle magic – we find that Bartlemy is much more than a kindly old gentleman. He clearly has knowledge beyond the that of our world. Could he really be hundreds of years old? And what does he know of The Greenstone Grail? Ah, yes – the Grail! What of the magical and mysterious McGuffin of this story? A relic upon which many a myth has been founded, both on this world, and as Hemmingway tells us, on others.
Let’s focus back on the boy, Nathan. Early on in the novel, he is strolling through the woods that border his adopted home when he stumbles upon a ruined chapel hidden deep in the undergrowth. There he’s faced with a vision of an ancient cup decorated with undecipherable runes and filled with blood. Nathan learns that the cup is an heirloom of the Thorn family, and their one surviving member, the robust and sergeant-major like Rowena, wants the cup restored to its rightful owners. In reality, there is some question over ownership – the grail (quite whether it is The Grail is cunningly never established) was sold many years ago by her ancestors to a Jewish family and all their art treasures were stolen by the Nazis during the war. Now the cup belongs to an Austrian Graf who wishes to sell it via Sotheby’s – but there is justifiable argument amongst the parties as to whether it is his to sell at all.
For Nathan, the cup has other significance. This remarkable young boy is able to travel in his dreams to another realm – a planet of flying xaurians and tall cities. As he dreams himself further into this world, he finds himself at first an unwilling witness and then a reluctant participant in grand events there and it becomes clear that the grail that is causing so much fuss at home, actually originates from this place, part of a great binding spell that will kill or cure.
The Greenstone Grail has the feeling of an epic story, yet it retains all the elements of fairy tale, told that wonderful evocative tone that we associate with the great British fantasists like Tolkein and C.S. Lewis – both of whom Hemmingway tips a wink to. There is something of the fable in here too – an allegorical lesson on the dangers of bad ecology and the science fictional elements tip this story into a subtly different area than that of the Prospero’s Children trilogy. The Greenstone Grail is sort of hybrid science fantasy and a successful one at that. Hemmingway’s characters are all beautifully drawn – the anxious but level headed mother Annie; the calming and benign Bartlemy; the slightly befuddled but stalwart Inspector Pobjoy who is tasked with trying to unravel unreal events transpiring in the real world. This last character embodies one of the strongest aspects of Hemmingway’s work. – the cross over of the fantastic into the real, recognizable world is a facet of her fiction that she depicts with such clarity that it drives the narrative like an engine. On reading The Greenstone Grail you may find yourself looking over your shoulder for pursuant water demons or wondering what lies beyond those shadows in front of you.