Books: Child life

The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay Heinemann, pounds 12.99; Esther Freud on a Fifties fable

Shena Mackay's new novel is about the powerlessness of children, their ability to keep a secret and the adults who abuse them. It is 1953, Coronation year, the year of Stalin's death and the ascent of Everest, but for April Harlency, aged eight, it is the unforgettable year that she meets Ruby, her first, best friend.

Mackay introduces us to April, 40 years on, making do for friendship with an irritating upstairs neighbour. She is a schoolteacher now, divorced and childless, clearing a space for herself in an overgrown London garden. Mackay, whose most passionate prose is reserved for nature, takes April back to Stonebridge, the village of her childhood, immersing us with relish in the small-time quiet of the country, "the hot still breath of cornfields and the took-took-took of hens." On the surface Stonebridge is a children's heaven, willow and alder, a water vole on a green island of crow's-foot in midstream, and the orchard of the title is "a dark-green and purple- blue paradise where bloomy plums dropped from the low trees into your hands." April and Ruby make a camp here in an abandoned railway carriage, adopting "the low hoot of the owl" as code. It is a private place to glory in their friendship and to stay safely out of reach of Ruby's bullying parents - that is, until Mr Greenidge appears.

In Mr Greenidge, Mackay has created a wonderfully sinister character. Jovial and modest, long-suffering and sly, with an invalid wife and a salami sausage of a dog called Liesel. On first meeting Mr Greenidge, April wonders if she's seen him before, and from that moment hardly a day passes that we don't come across him. He loiters with his dog in Lovers Lane, ambles past the school, and calls to April with the low hoot of the owl, so that she and Ruby are forced to switch to "the lone cry of the peewit" to outwit him. Mackay captures perfectly the passion and humour of their friendship, the shared books, treasures and jokes. But against this atmosphere of lightheartedness, of fairy-lights and teacakes, a small, sad drama is being played out.

April is invited to the Greenidges on Sundays to play with Liesel and cheer up the housebound Mrs G. "Bless me, I've gone and forgotten the sugar!" - and while April searches for it in the unfamiliar kitchen, Mr Greenidge comes up behind her and presses his body against hers, tickling her neck with his salt-and-pepper beard, "You won't tell will you?" And, of course, April is too polite to do so.

Mackay undercuts the warmth of April's family life with a real and creeping dread. Her parents, Betty and Percy, are cosy people with a period language of their own who fail to guess the cause of their daughter's distress.

For all the riotous descriptions of nature, the over-packed images too full of adjectives, this is a subtle book. Its themes are simply and beautifully constructed and the beguiling atmosphere of a Fifties childhood lingers on after the last page.

On April's return journey, in middle age, she passes the Greenidges' old house. "Sometimes, in memory, that pink quilted bed was as innocuous as a rose, and I think, what Mr Greenidge did wasn't really so bad." But with her next breath she remembers how he corroded her childhood with fear, anxiety and deceit, and we are reminded of the ability of children to push their suffering to one side.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before