“Here,” said my niece, handing me a book, “this is something Grace might like.” I took it and mumbled some very ungracious words of thanks, thinking about the shelves at home groaning with unread volumes.
I don’t think I even glanced at the cover, and the book lay among the boots, dog leads, bags of compost and the other car boot flotsam and jetsam for weeks.
By some strange process, the book made its way into the house. I’m determined to get to the bottom of this process; other people’s houses remain clear of clutter, while ours looks like the lost property office at Heuston Station.
The book continued its mysterious journey into the house and, one night when we’d finished our bedtime book, I found it on my daughter’s bedside table.
I picked it up. The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson. Hmm. Was it something my daughter could read herself, or something that ought to be read to her?
I flicked through the pages and discovered it suffered from the same fault Alice found with her sister’s book at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland: it didn’t have any pictures or conversations in it. (“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”)
So it was for me to read aloud, and I began, rather half-heartedly, for it looked long and dense and rather serious.
From the very first page, it was clear that The Star of Kazan was a masterpiece. It told the story of Annika, a foundling who is brought up by two servants in Vienna in the early 1900s.
The recreation of the city was beautifully and understatedly achieved, and the characters were drawn with rare artistry. The day Annika was allowed to cook the Christmas carp almost brought a tear to my eye.
Soon, there was competition between my wife and I to read the bedtime story, and if I missed a night, I found myself reading the chapters I had missed in my own time.
Annika’s idyllic childhood in the Vienna of Emperor Franz Josef was too good to last, of course. A woman with the magnificent name of Edeltraut von Tannenberg arrives, claiming to be her mother.
She is sent to a penitential boarding school and subjected to all sorts of neglect and careless cruelty. Towards the end of the story, I resorted to taking the book with me as I left my daughter’s bedroom and reading ahead in secret.
How had I lived so long in ignorance of Eva Ibbotson? She was as prolific as she was gifted, even though she began to publish novels only in her 50s.
She prefigured Harry Potter with her book The Secret of Platform 13, which describes an extra, mysterious platform at King’s Cross station. Critics said she could sue J K Rowling for plagiarism, but instead Ibbotson said she “would like to shake her by the hand. I think we all borrow from each other as writers.”
Ibbotson, who was born in Vienna in 1925 and died a few years back, also had a refreshing solution to writer’s block. “When I get stuck in a book,” she said, “I usually try putting an aunt in.”
After The Star of Kazan, we progressed to Journey to the River Sea, The Dragonfly Pool and The Secret Countess. All three of us loved the spirited heroines, and the way snobbish people always got what was coming to them.
At Ibbotson’s home in London’s Belsize Park, various aunts and uncles washed up as the post-war tides receded. This atmosphere of a house full of displaced and eccentric relatives is recreated in The Dargonfly Pool to great effect.
She once said that her childhood memories were full of aunts “who cut out the sides of their slippers to let their bunions out.”
Ibbotson ended up living in the rather unglamorous north of England, but she travelled when she wrote, sometimes to the jungles of the Amazon, sometimes to the parks and squares of her beloved Vienna.
My daughter got used to the sobs that occasionally wracked her father at bedtime. Sometimes it was the story that got me, and sometimes it was pure envy.
“Why are you crying, dad?” she would ask.
“I wish I could write like that,” I would sniffle.