A war is raging, and a young boy is sent to spend the summer with his grandmother in her small country village. His life changes forever when she decides to rescue a downed enemy pilot and nurse him back to health. While helping her tend to the injured man, the boy also meets Mr. Girandole, a faun, who was once his grandmother’s love and is still her dear friend.
She knows just the place to conceal the pilot while he convalesces: a crooked little tower in an overgrown sculpture garden in the woods. Throughout the summer, the boy explores the garden, which was built long ago by an eccentric Duke who lost his beloved wife. The garden is reputed to contain a riddle that, if answered, will open a door to Faery.
A Green and Ancient Light (2016) is a beautifully written, gently melancholy tale. The pace is perhaps too slow at the start, with a lot of time spent on the logistics of hiding the pilot from nosy neighbors and the authorities.
It picks up in the latter half as the boy and his grandmother begin to make progress on the riddle. The excitement of the solving contrasts poignantly with the sadness of what will actually happen if they succeed. By the end of the book, the boy will face the adult realities of loss and grief for the first time.
It’s a book about a child, but it’s not really a book for children. It’s not that there’s anything inappropriate in it; it’s more that the vocabulary is too sophisticated and the “end of childhood” theme might be too abstract for someone who hasn’t had that experience yet. Young adult readers might enjoy it, if they have the patience to get through the slow parts.
Frederic S. Durbin makes the unusual choice of omitting names for all of the human characters. His rationale is that he wanted to make the story feel universal, as if it could have happened to any child in any country.
A Green and Ancient Light isn’t really groundbreaking, but it’s atmospheric and quietly moving. This is a good one to curl up with on a moody, rainy night.