If the title of this book seems familiar, you’re not wrong. It probably means that, like me, you’re a reader of Eva Ibbotson’s fiction. And you’re almost certainly thinking of Journey to the River Sea, the novel she published twenty-one years ago and which has lived long in the memory. Escape to the River Sea by Emma Carroll is inspired by, and set in, the world that Eva Ibbotson created. It’s always risky to touch a classic book and Macmillan and Emma Carroll have been brave in the extreme to revisit the world created by the late, great storyteller Eva Ibbotson. But here’s the good news: it works!
The novel features Finn and Maia’s children and is set largely in the Amazon rainforest. But the central character is a creation of Emma Carroll’s own, Rosa Sweetman, a half-Jewish Austrian sent to England on the Kindertransport in 1938 at the age of three. The book is set in 1946 and she is still living in the north of England with Sir Clovis and Lady Prue at Westwood. She has been protected from any knowledge of the Nazi atrocities and is deeply concerned that her family has not come looking for her.
When Yara Fielding, a connection of the family at Westwood, arrives for a visit en route to her Amazon home, she is immediately aware that Rosa does not feel at home at Westwood in spite of the care shown for her. Yara, therefore, invites Rosa to accompany her on her journey to South America. She, it seems, is going to continue her grandfather’s quest for the giant sloth, long thought to be extinct.
This is a splendid novel. I approached it warily for Eva Ibbotson is one of my most loved writers. But Emma has in no way detracted from Journey to the River Sea. Her characters are living breathing people and they are all her own – with the possible exception of Miss Minton who remains very much Eva’s creation. But the other characters from Journey to the River Sea have matured and developed and in that sense are all Emma’s. And the plot of Escape to the River Sea does not depend on the earlier novel for its enjoyment or comprehension.
Emma Carroll does not try to write like Eva Ibbotson (thankfully) but her characters are very reminiscent of Eva’s in their strength and bravery. Of course, Emma is a successful, award-winning author so it is no surprise that she has written an excellent book. What I did find surprising, though, is the way in which she has evoked Eva in her writing without ever tipping over into pastiche. Emma’s prose is, I think, less complex than Eva’s but it has the same fluid quality to it, appearing to be effortless in its construction.
Needless to say, the novel is not actually about a search for the giant sloth but something vastly more significant. Like her parents, Yara is furiously principled and unable not to see justice done. She’s no plaster saint, however, and her flaws and passions, as well as her virtues make her real. Her relationships with her younger twin siblings, who become Rosa’s friends, are complex and the nature of her work makes secrecy imperative and causes friction.
The three Fielding children all have an effect on Rosa and how she sees herself and her life. In the rainforest with them she finally feels that she is in her proper place and she relaxes and develops as the novel goes on. If I have one quibble with the story, it is that it perhaps ends too well. I am aware, however, that it’s a book for younger readers than I who might need the security of such an ending. And, if the truth were to be told, I do too!