Peril in the Pyrenees

landscape

Joan Aiken Bridle the Wind Puffin 1986 (1983)

In the chaotic years that are the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars young Felix Brooke is journeying from England to his home in Galicia in Spain when he is shipwrecked off the Basque coast of France, thus precipitating the strange sequence of events in this novel. He convalesces at the fictional Abbey of St Just de Seignanx, on the French coast near Bayonne (very much like Mont-St-Michel in France or St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall) but finds that due to a form of amnesia partly brought on by a supernatural happening he has lost three months of his life. Rescuing Juan, a youngster his own age, from hanging, he helps them both escape the terrifying Abbot Father Vespasian by trekking east before crossing the Pyrenees on their way to hoped-for freedom in Spain. But, not unexpectedly, things don’t go to plan as they are haunted by the memory of the Abbot and chased by a group of brigands.

As always with Joan Aiken there is a comforting depth of assurance in her handling of people, places and plotting. Her evocation of the early nineteenth-century Basque country feels very realistic, both through historic details such as costume and language as well as through geography (it’s possible to follow most of the two youngsters’ journey on modern maps); having done family walks on the French side of the Pyrenees and gone skiing on the Spanish side, I loved being reminded of the wild, picturesque and still very Romantic scenery typical of these mountains. Aiken also conjures up an authentic sense of the supernatural, from folk charms to Felix’s sense of Fate, from Gothick descriptions of landscape to physical portrayals of their pursuers who uncannily appear when least expected.

Into all of this she weaves sheer poetry, from short epigrams through snatches of ballads to epic prose, as the two fugitives traverse the singular terrain of the Atlantic Pyrenees. This is magic realism of a distinct quality, all the more effective for being aimed without condescension at a young adult audience. Aiken doesn’t minimise the existence of cruelty and death in her world, but she does so without gratuitous violence or crudity.

The middle tale of a trilogy featuring Felix Brooke (Go Saddle the Sea was the first of the three), Bridle the Wind also introduces us to the intriguing figure of Juan, whose secret we discover in the closing pages of the novel. Having invested so much in the latter, we are to hope that we will meet Juan again in the final part, The Teeth of the Gale. That this is virtually certain to be the case is suggested by Aiken’s elder brother John being the dedicatee; Juan is of course the Spanish form of John, while Joan is the female version of the same name. Investing your fiction with aspects of your personal life and experiences is often a guarantee of commitment to your creations and, as here, inspires confidence in your readers that behind the fiction lie authentic emotions.

The Puffin edition has the wonderful line drawings of Pat Marriott which add hugely to the atmosphere of the books. The illustrations reminded me somewhat of the equally wonderful Edward Ardizzone; but though it’s been claimed that American artist Edward Gorey illustrated early Joan Aiken books “as Pat Marriott”, the truth of the matter is that Pat Marriott did indeed produce the pictures credited to her (she died in 2002, two years before Aiken) while Gorey illustrated many of the covers for US editions of Aiken’s Wolves books. (I am indebted to Ann Giles, aka as Bookwitch, for putting me right on this.) I would strongly recommend searching out illustrated editions of these works because, as a certain young lady said, what is the use of a book without pictures? But, at the very least, seek out these new editions.

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7 thoughts on “Peril in the Pyrenees

  1. I do know I have enjoyed reading Joan Aiken, and must look out for this trilogy. I wonder why she abandoned the title theme for the last – ‘Mounting the Gale’ would have seemed obviousl.
    I remember being very entertained by a book by John Aiken (her husband, I think) published in 1971 called ‘Nightly Deadshade’. It had a good tale, and the best collection of spoonerisms I have ever encountered.

    1. The first two titles are based on a proverb (whether traditional or invented by the author, I don’t know) which runs Go saddle the sea, put a bridle on the wind, before you choose your place. As the first two titles had used up the imagery, Joan obviously had to purloin another traditional phrase for the third book, set a few years later.

      I hadn’t come across the John Aiken novel you mention, but I will look out for it. I think this is Joan’s brother rather than husband (see the penultimate paragraph in my review), but it sounds from what you say that he shares her love of wordplay (her books have imaginative titles like A Harp of Fishbones or A Bundle of Nerves). I’m guessing you love spoonerisms too…

      1. You are right – it must have been the brother as her two spouses were Ronald and Julius.
        I am a great fan of the ‘People who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones’ variety.

  2. Great review, and that sounds like a great book too. I love that entire region too, and adventure stories, (which this sounds like) I’m a bit old for this book, but quite tempted to go out and buy it on the sly!

    1. I feel that the best children’s books, whether for youngsters or young adults, are ones that can also to appeal to adult readers. Not in a knowing or superior way that patronises the target audience but because they are well written and can be appreciated by any age. They’re like pieces of music that have an immediate appeal for the casual listener but the aficionado can also point to how they work their magic.

      So my advice, Arran, is that you can never be too old for this book, nor do you need to be embarrassed about buying it! Or the other two volumes!

  3. My neighbor (an Aiken fanatic) has this series, so I’ve borrowed it. I’m finally taking that step beyond Dido and Simon and the Hanoverians. BTW, saw Aiken’s daughter, Lizza, do a 50th anniversary reading/talk last fall, for Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Great photos and stories about her mother.

    1. I’m sorry to have missed her when she was doing the equivalent readings/talks at the Cheltenham Literary Festival here in the UK, but consoled by being able to follow her great blog on Joan’s life and work.

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