"A Library of Lemons" Jo Cotterill (YA Fiction)
Well you don't need to ask why I wanted to read this book! Of course, it was the word library in the title! The synopsis also really appealed. The story is about 10 year old Calypso whose mum has died a few years ago and her father, who is clearly emotionally struggling to cope with his grief, throws himself into writing his own book ("A History of the Lemon") leaving everything else to Calypso. As a passionate reader, she retreats into her own world of books and fiction. When she meets new girl Mae at school, the girls' shared love of reading and writing stories draws them together and shows Calypso a way to understand her world, feelings and family. It sounded right up my street.
I have not come across Jo Cotterill before but I have since learned she has written over 20 books for children which I am now looking forward to discovering. She describes this book as a story "about what it means to be human." It is a heart wrenching, moving, engrossing and exquisite book. I was totally taken with it and so loved spending time with Calypso and her painful struggle to realise the world around her; to gain the insight and "inner strength" to find happiness and rebuild a future for herself and her lost father.
The book opens with a series of very short, frank paragraphs where Cotterill effectively lets Calypso introduce herself through her own unwitting repetition of her dad's sayings. It is easy to build a picture of a lonely, isolated young girl who is full of questions she is unable to ask as "it's not the sort of thing I'd ask Dad and I can't ask Mum because she's dead." Her father seems to have embedded the idea that Calypso does not need friends - "you should be your own best friend" and "you shouldn't need other people to make you happy." Although her teachers call her solitary, she tells us this is not a bad thing. You just need to have "inner strength'. Her dad is a firm believer in "inner strength". The sad innocence of Calypso's further comment that "it's not that he doesn't love me..." and "it's not that I don't like people. But I prefer books," speak volumes (excuse the pun!) and such subtle implications allow the reader to perceive a conflict within this ten year old even though she can't see it herself. There is a continued repetition of the words "inner strength" throughout the novel and they are powerfully used to explore the concept of friendship, parenting, happiness and love. It's also a bit of a mantra from both Dad and Calypso as they try to convince themselves they are fine, they are whole and they are happy. It's also used by the father as an excuse not to confront his emotions, mental state and more urgently, responsibilities towards Calypso. He is hidden away writing his book while Calypso finds the cupboards empty again and says silently "You didn't go shopping and you promised you would. You said Scout's Honour. And I'm trying so hard to find inner strength but I'm not sure where to look." This child is trying so fiercely to please her father; to cope, to follow in his example to not fail him. She is confused by the fact that she can't find her inner strength and what this might mean. This is a child desperately in need of a father. It is heart rendering but I did not find it sentimental. Using the perspective of a child and Calypso's blunt, honest, open voice saves the novel from becoming any kind of social services report or sob story. She's a thoughtful, reflective, very likeable and endearing child. This is a story about families, friendship and finding your inner strength.
New girl Mae then arrives at school. She is a warm, funny, articulate and imaginative child who immediately hits it off with Calypso. "I knew you were a kindred spirit," she tells Calypso who realises "we have become friends and I didn't even mean to." She didn't realise there were other people in the world who preferred the imaginary world to the real one.
Calypso begins to go to Mae's house - the first time she has really gone into another family. She watches the family interact together, fascinated and bemused. Mae's family row - Calypso's dad never argues, he just retreats and leaves her feeling like a "cloud, thundery and dark". She is perplexed by the way the arguments escalate and then diffuse or get forgotten as the family come back together. From watching Mae's family, from spending more time with them, Calypso begins to learn more about how a family should function and how humans relate and interact together. Following one particular incident, a crying Calypso finds herself being comforted by Mae's mum. She is "enveloped in warmth and security and strength and the tears stream even faster because it's almost like I'm borrowing a mother, something deep inside me bursts and my knees buckle but Mae's mum holds me up. Someone else is holding me up.....someone else is being strong for me. It's such a relief."
I loved the following contemplation from Calypso which comes later in the story:
"Maybe if you lock away the sadness for too long it all builds up. Like filling a tank. And one day the tank bursts and you have way more sadness than normal because it's all been stored away. Maybe it's important to let yourself be sad sometimes...to stop the tank filling up."
Calypso's pensive observations are naive and candid but simultaneously full of insight and revelation. I loved the way she began to interpret the world and her thoughts "exploded" and "collided" in her head; the "world slows down to settle into a new pattern."
There is a terribly powerful moment for Calypso where she finally realises what it means to have inner strength and why her dad is so sad and so frightened to love her. Her distinctive and strong voice tells us that "I think maybe you can be a family with just two people, one step at a time on our journey. But hopefully we're going the same way now." The final few pages repeat the words "lemon" and "yellow" for deliberate effect and to signify the journey both Calypso and her father have travelled. The final lines use the words "shine", "lemon," "glistening" and "light" which draw us back to her mother's painting and her father's writing but reinventing them in an image of optimism, hope and love.
There is much about the power of books and stories in this novel. Cotterill is clearly a passionate bibliomaniac and the references to other novels and the way the girls' enthuse about reading and talk about the fictional characters as if they are real, enhances Cotterill's own fictional characters, plot and atmosphere. The power of writing to heal (both adults and children), to say what can't be said aloud or face to face, to process, to confront and see clearly, is incredibly powerful. A strong case for the use writing therapy within mental health if ever there was one. I could not tear my eyes away from these passages, even when I had to feel around me for my discarded, already sodden, tissue.
I'm interested in how many children's books tackle the issue of grief, loneliness, solitude and mental illness at the moment. This is certainly a book which could be used to support children with difficult emotional lives. It would be a great read for any young adult as books are always a useful tool for empathy, curiosity and the start of a tricky conversation. There is a certain safety in exploring difficult feelings and ideas through the pages of fiction. But I would end by saying that above all this is a novel about a beautiful young girl and her empowering journey of self discovery. It is a book of warmth, friendship, love, hope and inner strength! I'll leave you with a final quote from Calypso:
"the strongest people are the ones who love others and let themselves be loved back. If you have inner strength but no one to love, what is it for?"
A 5* read.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced copy in return for a fair and honest review.
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