Just deserts

Lipizzaner horse and rider, from a vintage postcard

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.

24 thoughts on “Just deserts

    1. Happy endings are what Tolkien dubbed eucatastrophes, aren’t they, sometimes brought about by divine intervention — a deus (or dea) ex machina — but otherwise by a fortunate resolution when the stars suddenly align and revelations emerge or events coincide. That’s certainly the case here.

      In real life such resolutions may reflect a desire for wish fulfilment but aren’t unknown, of course. If in fiction the ground will have been prepared by the energetic efforts of the protagonist and their friends.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Excellent description of good fiction: “the ground will have been prepared by the energetic efforts of the protagonist and their friends.”

        We don’t like the Deus ex machina endings any more, however satisfactory they were for listeners in a time where science wasn’t even magic yet, and everything in their world seemed capricious.

        But too many authors want you to buy ‘what happened’ (especially including TV writers) because they said so. Nope. If you don’t show me HOW, I won’t believe it.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I agree with all that you say, Alicia, of course—but I often think there’s a little part of most of us which looks for a little magic to happen, not as blundering as a deus ex machina but perhaps that indefinable something that can’t quite be explained, nothing too outrageous…

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  1. I haven’t read this one yet, but I find the themes of everyone needing a home where one can be truly safe, and the yearning for parents’ love find place in a lot of her books; the one I last read Monster Mission also explored these themes. Must pop this one onto my list as well. Enjoyed your review

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy this if and when you got round to it, Mallika; as you say it includes themes found in her other novels, in all likelihood a reflection of her own life experiences. Glad you liked the review. 😊

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  2. My eldest daughter loved Eva Ibbotson when she was at school and kept leaving her copies out for me to read, it just never happened but I really should get around to it!

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  3. I love the sound of this – I’ve read a few other books by Ibbotson and enjoyed them, so I’ll keep this one in mind. Your description reminds me of Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart, which is also set in Vienna and features the Lipizzaner horses.

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    1. I haven’t read any Mary Stewart since The Crystal Cave, and not long after it was published — in the 70s I think — so I’ll bear this one in mind, thanks!

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    1. I’m more drawn to her novels for older readers, Ola — this one and Journey to the River Sea for young teens, and others now marketed as YA — but I know her titles for pre-teens have a loyal readership (though I’ve only read The Secret of Platform 13).

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  4. For some reason I’m no longer receiving email notifications when you post, Chris so have to come and find you via WordPress reader and I’m delighted I remembered to today! Isn’t this a wonderful book and your appreciation of it has reminded me why I enjoyed it so much. For some reason this novel receives less attention than Eva Ibbotson’s other books in schools. The Journey to the River Sea appears to be a favourite among teachers but Star of Kazan is the one for me. I love the way you have captured the spirit of the book. I don’t have a copy of my own, I used to sneakily read the school library copy but would love to reread it now!

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    1. I tend to post every other day, Anne, so maybe your email server has decided it can’t be bothered to inform you of a regular-as-clockwork event?!

      Yes, though I enjoyed Journey very much this engaged me rather more, probably for emotional rather than any intellectual reasons I can muster. I’m glad you liked my evocation of it (though I tried hard not to give away too much I probably hinted way more than I should have!) and hope you get to reread it in the near future. I’m now weighing up which of the three other Ibbotson YA novels I’ve got which is calling most strongly to me!

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      1. Journey to the River Sea is an enjoyable read but like you I found Star of Kazan more emotionally engaging. I don’t think you revealed too much, it served as a happy reminder for me! I have The Morning Gift, one of her YA titles, on my wish list and will be very interested to see which you select and read your views.

        I will fiddle around with my email settings in the hope I don’t miss any of your posts in future.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’d be fascinated to know what you thought of The Morning Gift, Anne, as I seem to remember I enjoyed it very much: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-morning. I think I may be in the mood for another Ibbotson sooner rather than later.

          Good luck with your email settings! I tend to rely on the WP Reader, and assiduously go through as many blog posts as I can every two or three days—I have to admit following 80+ bloggers can be a daunting task, even though a fair number either don’t post very often or have been dormant for rather a long time.

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  5. I expected to LOVE this but somehow it fell flat for me. Not sure why, maybe I was just not in the mood. I should try again as there’s hardly any other book by Ibbotson I have not enjoyed.

    Sorry to add more to your TBR list, but I second the recommendation for Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. They are escapist (but not brainless) fun in a similar way.

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    1. I can see a few possible reasons why this may’ve fallen flat for you, Lory, reasons that might have derailed my own fuller appreciation of it.

      Annika’s devotion to her professed mother seemed to ignore any worrying discrepancies in her lived experience, for example, and her (literally) precipitate change of mind also felt slightly unreal, all rendering her a flawed heroine in my eyes — but that may have been a deliberate ploy by Ibbotson; ditto Herman’s conversion from militarism to the arts. Also, the episodes in the north, at Grossenfluss and Spittal, felt a bit too Spartan, and along with their made-up names (“Great River” and “Hospice”) made Annika’s time there less credible than when she was in Vienna.

      But overall I felt able to excuse the purely fairytale mannerisms in favour of the warmth of Annika’s Austrian upbringing which I’m sure Ibbotson would dearly have liked to have had herself. I shouldn’t leave so long till my next Ibbotson, though — should it be A Company of Swans, for instance, or A Song for Summer? 🙂

      Thanks for seconding the Stewart, I won’t let that escape me if it crosses my path!

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  6. How lovely to be reminded of this book – while I think Journey to the River Sea is likely to remain my favourite of Ibbotson’s books, I did enjoy The Star of Kazan, and I’d agree that the horses stay in the mind. Nice discussion in the comments, too – it’s always lovely to find others sharing their appreciation for a favourite author!

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