Building castles in Spain

roch-castle-1880

Joan Aiken The Teeth of the Gale
Red Fox 1997 (1988)

The resourceful teenager of Bridle the Wind has, five years later, turned into the resourceful young man of this, the final volume in the Felix Brooke trilogy, but though its speedy, almost perfunctory ending seemed to suggest the way was open for a follow-up, this was sadly not to be. A pity, as Felix is an engaging if slightly humourless character, and well matched by the prickly Juana, the object of his attentions.

As with Bridle the Wind and its predecessor Go Saddle the Sea, this volume is set in early 19th-century Spain following the Napoleonic Wars, now riven with rival political factions (as the author’s own Afterword helpfully tells us). Felix is persuaded to go on a mission to rescue the kidnapped children of a nobleman, but all is not as it initially seems even though enough clues are presented to the honest young man along the way. The action ranges from Galicia in the north-west, across the Basque Country and Pamplona to the lands south of the central Pyrenees, thus covering some of the ground familiar from Felix’s earlier adventures, latterly with Juana. Joan Aiken captures much of the intrigue that 19th-century historical novels are rife with, not to mention the jeopardy inherent in climbing precipitous mountains, staying in isolated villages and coping with dangerous wild animals such as bears. Even for someone like me who is not over-familiar with this part of the world or is halting in the language, the colour she brings to her setting and plot seem authentic enough, and though we know this is fiction it has enough plausibility for the reader to believe it could almost be true. And, perhaps in a final nod to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (which Go Saddle the Sea referenced) the climax of the tale is set in a ruined castle much as Catherine Morland imagined it: “What, is it really a castle, an old castle?” – “The oldest in the kingdom.” – “But is it like what one reads of?” – “Exactly – the very same.” – “But now really – are there towers and long galleries?” – “By dozens.”

Familiar from most of Joan Aiken’s fiction is the delight a mature reader may garner from all the little period details that could pass by a younger or less experienced reader: the flavour of 19th-century writing, the use of Spanish terms and phrases, the references to local history and topography, the ordinariness of much of the everyday events which renders the extraordinary, when it happens, less incredible. She also does not avoid the reality of unhappiness and death by shielding the target audience from their existence so be warned: some characters you might invest empathy in do not survive. In common with her more whimsical tales, such as the Dido Twite novels or the fairytale short stories, there are recurring motifs, such as death by falling from a great height, but unlike, say, Bridle the Wind there is little magic realism, Aiken here preferring to simply narrate an exciting tale of adventure and derring-do.

It’s evident that Aiken was keen to resolve some of the loose ends left dangling at the close of Bridle the Wind, especially whether Felix manages to re-connect with Juana. It’s not a modern romance, and Aiken doesn’t choose to sugar-coat the relationship; it’s not as unresolved though as the situation in the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence where we are left to wonder if Dido and Simon marry.* If not as strong a work then as the previous two in the trilogy there is still much to enjoy; and if the mark of a good novel is that it is worth reading again, I shall certainly be keeping The Teeth of the Gale on my shelves for a re-visit, along with the others in the trilogy.
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* Charles Kingsley also refused to unite Tom and Ellie in nuptial bliss in The Water-Babies, on rather spurious grounds:
“And of course Tom married Ellie?” – My dear child, what a silly notion! Don’t you know that no one ever marries in a fairy tale, under the rank of a prince or a princess?

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2 thoughts on “Building castles in Spain

  1. It seems a pity when novels in a series don’t maintain a steady progression to the point where the climax of the last one is designed to elicit the standing ovation. Nor am I a fan of inconclusive outcomes in a romance.
    Still, this trilogy, from what you have so competently described, seems worth reading to judge for myself.

    1. I agree that it’s really satisfying when there’s a pay-off at the end of a novel that confirms our expectations of that kind of narrative. But occasionally it’s also good to see art imitating nature when endings aren’t pat or even formulaic, and the boy doesn’t always get the girl.

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