The Star of Kazan
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2008 (2004)
‘Oh God, she had to believe that her mother was good. How did people live if they thought their mother was dishonest?’
— Chapter 37
Two striking images, among so very many, stand out for me in this novel: one is of a Lipizzaner horse and its rider, working together as one, and the other is of an armoured fist sometimes accompanied by the motto, ‘Stand aside, Ye Vermin Who Oppose Us’. And between the two uneasily sits the figure of 12-year-old foundling Annika who finds herself emotionally torn between the community which has raised her and the family she never knew she had.
Brought up at the turn of the 20th century in a Vienna then at the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she is raised below stairs in an academic household, loved and repaying that love in countless ways. She is quick to learn, to make friendships, to develop and enjoy skills such as cooking. But all the time she harbours dreams of her birth mother coming to claim her, explain her abandonment and then whisk her off to a new life.
But when that day does come and she is taken to North Germany to live in a castle, she finds that dreams are rarely the same as reality — and in her innocence she is unable to accept that people can be dissembling and not have her welfare truly at heart.
Eva Ibbotson fashioned this novel with all the trappings of traditional fairytale — the young heroine who finds her situation utterly changed, the acts done out of the kindness of her heart being repaid severalfold, even a young knight on his charger. But the author infuses these trappings with real human beings and sets it all in a landscape which, even if some of the locations aren’t real, feel very solid with the telling. It’s all placed within a period close to the childhood of Ibbotson’s own parents in Austria, and incorporates much autobiographical detail, from the Vienna Eva knew as a child between her birth in 1925 and her departure in 1933 as the Nazi Party came to power, with Eva shuttling between Edinburgh, Paris and London, depending on where her now separated parents were living. It’s not hard to appreciate that Annika’s desperation for parental love came from an author who yearned for affection from her rather distant parents.
Within the complex narrative several strands interweave like melodic themes in counterpoint: a delight in simple pleasures, sociable activities and honest labour; with Vienna as a character in its own right we enjoy the suburban squares, the parks, the Giant Wheel, the opera and the Lipizzaner horses. Against this we sense the steady advance of technology, the inexorable rise of German militarism, a lack of compassion from certain strata in society, even a calculated cruelty, all of which was to erupt less than six years after this story in the Great War.
Ostensibly this is a historical crime mystery, with missing treasure functioning rather more than merely as McGuffin — it includes a necklace of rubies, a butterfly broach studded with blue sapphires, diamond earrings, rings and a jewel from the land of the Tatars called the Star of Kazan — but the focus is less on the whodunit, or even the how and the why, and more on the cast of characters. So there are the three learned professors, Ellie and Sigrid from below stairs, the great aunt neglected by the Egghart family but with an unusual past, the youngsters from the vicinity who become Annika’s friend, the gypsy boy Zed with his own backstory, Annika’s newfound brother Hermann; nor must we forget Frau Edeltraut von Tannenberg whose desire to refurbish her dilapidated castle and restore the family’s honour leads her to young Annika whom she says she now regrets abandoning in a mountain chapel outside Vienna.
I admired the heart in this story which emphasised the lengths some may go to find love and true friendship; that, and the authenticity of the details with which Ibbotson invested the narrative felt right to me. Even the fictional aspects I found convincing, such as the school at the schloss at Grossenfluss which at times outdid Brontë’s Lowood School, and the von Tannenberg’s castle of Spittal which belies its name, deriving as it does from the word for hospital as a place of healing. The uncredited map which accompanies this edition shows Grossenfluss and Spittal in the old region of Pomerania, once part of Prussia but now split between Germany in the west and Poland in the east; you will, however search vainly for either location, or that of the spa town of Bad Haxenfeld, even though castles and spas are numerous in this area.
This is, if I may put it thus, a sensual novel. One feels the chill in Spittal and the warmth of the Viennese kitchen; the frugality of the meals in the north contrasts with the richness of the recipes, the dishes and desserts described in the household Annika grows up in; one senses the false emotions and pretended affections Annika gets in some quarters with the genuine feelings she receives in her adopted family. Above all Ibbotson shows due respect for all her characters, even many of the more despicable — all get their appropriate deserts, even those who we might feel deserved somewhat more just deserts after all their knavery.
And the ending is just perfect — I defy you not to yield a sigh of satisfaction as you close the final page.