“Seldom Seen” by Sarah Ridgard

I loved this book!

In rural Suffolk, UK in 1980s, Desiree White is bothered by too many secrets – “I should never have started crawling around in ditches, kicking up people’s secrets. I used to be afraid that if I tripped and fell, I’d crack my head open and they’d spill out everywhere. The stuff I knew, the secrets”

The story winds back and forth over 6 years, starting with 14 year old Desiree finding a dead, handless baby in ditch and ending with 21 year old Desiree finally believing that the ghost of the dead baby, whom she calls Peewit, has finally found peace and moved on (is this a spoiler? No, I think of as an indulgence to seek solace in when going might get darker and darker at some places in the book).

What charmed me in the book was how the players were not just the villagers and the newcomers and the Americans renting from farmer Guppy, but also the goats and the pair of stray hens (survivors of a lorry full of chickens skidding into a ditch and spilling his load of crates full of chickens all over the road) and even the fields, especially the evil Drunken Mary:

“Those were the best times at work, when the shop was quiet, when it was just me and Elmy and I’d fold my arms and listen to his stories of when he was a boy, the places he knew, his tales of Star Naked and Shoulder of Mutton. Elmy could name all the fields hereabouts.

‘Lovelands, Featherbeds,’ he said, ‘That’s where most courting couples would go.’ Those were the hideaway meadows, where the earth was as soft and as light as air. Or the faraway fields, the ones out in the middle of nowhere, like Waterloo, South Sea, and Montserrat. ‘Those big old fields today, they swallowed up hundreds of those small fields to get that size,’ he said.

Elmy could name every single one of them as a boy, he said. ‘I was strong as anything back then, with a quick head on me.’ […]

‘There was one field though,’ he said.’A dark mean old field, near the back of the pub. She had a strong root pull on her, all right. Nobody went near that one if they could help it.’

I knew the one, only twelve acres or so, one of the last on the edge of the village before the prairie fields began. I’d noticed how the soil there always smelled sour after ploughing; how hares slid across its puddled clay. Dark green slime oozed into the ditches.

‘It’s a field that’s lost its mother,’ Elmy said. He reckoned it was never looked after properly, and then it was too late.’The clay got waterlogged, bloated up with hunger and turned bad. No amount of muckspreading or draining ever seemed to put it right. that’s why it was always known as Drunken Mary,’ he said.’That’s a field that would take anyone down, given half a chance. Suck your boots off and spit your buttons out after.'”

I love the quote above also, because my uncle used to work as ameliorator in a collective farm, so joining up and draining the small fields into the bigger ones. But, of course, Estonia being small, even our “big” is quite small. And now many of those fields are abandoned, forest taking over …

I am a small town girl myself, but my mother grew up in countryside and when one looks back in time, Estonians were the peasants (no nobility of our own, the Christian crusaders and their heirs lording over Estonians fro 700 years made sure of that). So, majority of people of my generation had close relatives in rural areas, not to mention the mandatory days of “volunteer” work on collective farm fields that happened everyone back in Soviet Estonia. That might explain my fascination with the rural life – not just the nostalgic fairy tales, but also the gritty everyday.

So, I am confused about recommending the book. From one side, I loved it and feel like everyone would enjoy it. From other side – I am not sure how someone entirely urban might read it. Would they be bored?

As for me, I now want to visit the UK countryside, to see the ditches and fields myself (even if, unlike the 14 year old Desiree – I would probably be too old hide away in ditches when I would like to observe and remain unseen myself)


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