Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Snow Goose

One of the Guardian's 1000 Novels You Must Read The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is whimsical and poignant. Before reading about it on the list I had never heard about of this novella but then I noticed that it appeared on my Amazon recommendations (by chance or by design?) and that I had heard of other Paul Gallico titles without realising that he was the one and same author. Over the last few months I have picked up a few Gallico orange Penguins, all very slim volumes, and all very cheaply. The Snow Goose (and "The Small Miracle", which is also included) I picked up for an irresistable 90 pence; I had to laugh though at the rate of inflation when I noticed on the back cover that in 1975 the RRP was only 30p!

This is the description given by The Guardian, which first attracted me to the title: Set on the desolate Essex marshes, this haunting novella of the friendship between the "mis-shapen and grotesque" reclusive artist, Philip Rhayader, and the "young, primitive inarticulate" yet beautiful Fritha, after she brings him a wounded snow goose to heal, made Gallico's name and became a world wide bestseller. Accompanied only by the snow goose, Philip rescues countless men from the shores of Dunkirk in his little boat, but when the bird returns alone, the now grown-up Fritha knows she will never see the hunchback again. Sentimental? Undoubtedly. Heartbreaking? Absolutely.

It is only 48 pages long but its spareness is not a deficit. It is indeed heartbreaking in its simplicity. I was most struck by the stark and powerful contrast of the beauty and innocence of the birds, the way of life, and the burgeoning love between Frith and Philip Rhayader, to the violent ravages of War. I also admired how the migration of the snow goose documented the passing of time and the growing love between the two characters.

One of my favourite passages: "She came running to the sea wall and turned her eyes, not towards the distant Channel whence a sail might come, but in the sky from whose flaming arches plummeted the snow goose. Then the sight, the sound, and the solitude surrounding broke the dam within her and released the surging, overwhelming truth of her love, let it well forth in tears."

Upon reading the following quote about birds from Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, it recalled The Snow Goose to me and what I have acknowledged above: "It seemed to her no other creature had the same dramatic capacity to underline and perfect events - the shifts in the seasons and the weather, the changes that run through people themselves."


verity said...

I have never ever cried so much over a book as this one. I read it when I was about 13 and was just devastated by it. I've never been able to reread it in case it has the same effect!

Paperback Reader said...

It was completely devastating.

farmlanebooks said...

I've never heard of this, but at only 48 pages long it has to be worth reading. Thank you!

Laura said...

Beautiful review, Claire. I was teary-eyed from about page 2 of this book. I remember as a small child seeing a dramatization on TV and crying my eyes out. I hoped it would air every year, like the Christmas specials did. This was back in the era of 4-5 TV channels, long before one could record programs. And alas, I never saw it again. Reading the book was a wonderful way to reconnect with the story.

I was also inspired to read it after reading a contemporary memoir, The Snow Geese, by William Fiennes, which I can highly recommend.

Paperback Reader said...

Laura, I have never seen the adaptation nor read the memoir and must look out for both. This was such a strong and powerful evocation of loss that was almost unbearable.