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.