Monday, October 19, 2009

Seasonal Reading

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies...
Cader Idris, by umbrellasheep

There are certain books that are forever linked in my mind with specific seasons. It's October again, and as I do every year, I'm rereading Susan Cooper's The Grey King.

Set in late October in the mountains of northwest Wales, The Grey King paints its scenes with Cooper's typical precision. One of her most striking gifts is the ability to integrate the minutiae of time and place into her stories so that the land and the seasons become characters in their own right. Take, for example, a passage from The Grey King:
... he peered out at the little grey town as the windscreen wipers tried in vain, twitch-creak, twitch-creak, to banish the fine misty rain from the glass. Deserted shops lined the little street, and a few bent figures in raincoats scurried by; he saw a church, a small hotel, more neat houses. Then the road was widening and they were out between trim hedges, with open fields beyond, and green hills rising against the sky: a grey sky, featureless with mist....

Rhys turned the car inland, towards the mountains, and almost at once Will had a strange new feeling of enclosure, almost of menace. The little road was narrow here, like a tunnel, with its high grass banks and looming hedges like green walls on either side. Whenever they passed the gap where a hedge opened to a field through a gate, he could see the green-brown bulk of hillsides rearing up at the grey sky. And ahead, as bends in the road showed the open sky briefly through the trees, a higher fold of grey hills loomed in the distance, disappearing into ragged cloud. Will felt he was in a part of Britain like none he had ever known before: a secret, enclosed place, with powers hidden in its shrouded centuries at which he could not begin to guess.

Stone hut in Snowdonia, by magnuscanis

I don't know when I first read the books in the Dark Is Rising cycle, but now I can't see the trees changing colors without wanting to reach for The Grey King, just as the smell of pine needles and the metallic tang of snow makes me wish to curl up with The Dark Is Rising (book 2 in the series).

Cooper is one of the rare authors who uses her setting as something more than just a frame on which to hang her narrative. Like a candle in a dark room, she picks out elements of beauty from the treasure trove of British and Celtic legends, yet leaves a sense of infinite mystery hanging just beyond the light. The world her stories inhabit seems to exist long before and long after her characters come to life.

Two of the five books in Cooper's young adult fantasy cycle received Newbery nods. In the hands of a lesser author, they might have been reduced to narrow cubbies like "action-adventure," "neo-Celtic Arthurian fantasy," or the dreaded "bittersweet coming-of-age story." The Dark Is Rising books both inhabit and transcend these genres; they are true classics.

What books do you read every year, and when?