Oct 4, 2012

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

I promised (threatened?) that there would be plenty of Eva Ibbotson reviews when I returned to blogging, and here I am to deliver. Just as I was hoping, The Star of Kazan was an absolutely perfect comfort read. The novel opens in 1896: a baby girl is abandoned in a small church in the Alps and is found by two middle-aged sisters, Ellie and Sigrid, who work as a cook and a maid for three professors in Vienna. Ellie and Sigrid name the baby Annika and bring her up as their own. Although she’s perfectly happy, Annika frequently daydreams about the day when her birth mother will show up to claim her and shower her with love. And sure enough, twelve years later her dream comes true: her mother, an aristocrat from Prussia, shows up to take her home to Spittal, a bleak old castle in the north. But rather than the happy ending Annika imagined, this big life change is only the beginning of her tribulations.

The strong sense of place is always one of my favourite things about Eva Ibbotson’s novels, and The Star of Kazan is no exception. She brings early twentieth-century Vienna to life: the descriptions of the streets, the markets, the statues, the vibrant cultural life, the pastries and the horses of the Spanish Riding School all make it sound like a magical place.

But there’s of course more to the early twentieth-century than glamour and romance: although The Star of Kazan is a comfortable, comforting book, Eva Ibbotson manages to highlight some of the period’s inequalities by focusing on a character who was brought up as a servant. I was involved in the narrative from the very beginning because I find adoption stories interesting, especially ones that raise questions about class along the way. Annika’s status as a foundling meant that nothing was known about her origins. Would this turn out to be a story in which an upper-class girl was brought up as a servant, only to have her inherently “superior” nature surface despite her environment? Sentences like “But neither Ellie nor Sigrid had taught the child how to dream. The ability to disappear into her own head had come from the unknown parents who had abandoned her” made me wary, but fortunately what Ibbotson does here is far more sophisticated than that.

As you might remember, I’ve been paying particular attention to Eva Ibbotson’s portrayal of class ever since I started enjoying her books, and The Star of Kazan complicates the picture in rather interesting ways. Ellie and Sigrid, Annika’s adoptive parents, are warm, kind-hearted characters, whereas her aristocratic mother is a sinister figure from the very beginning. But Ibbotson does more than just give us a “reversed” picture where the working class characters are romanticised and the rich are villainised: more so than in any of her other novels (at least the ones I’ve read to date), she highlights the processes through which systematic privilege leads to dehumanisation. This is visible in Annika’s birth family; in the Eggharts, her stuck-up neighbours in Vienna; and even in Annika herself once she begins to be trained to become a Proper Young Lady. As you can see in the quote I share at the end of this post, her friend Zed worries because he knows that Annika will “lose her battle”: more than personal kindness or the lack thereof, the sense of entitlement of a family like Annika’s is a by-product of the place they’re trained to take in an unfair social order.

I loved the fact that The Star of Kazan subverts the traditional adoption narrative, where the long-lost birth parents show up and immediate prove superior to the adoptive parents who were actually there changing diapers and staying up all night and tending to scrapped knees day after day. Unfortunately — spoiler ahoy, avert your eyes and skip the rest of this paragraph if you care — the ending undermines this subversion to some extent. By the end of the novel, Annika appreciates her adoptive family and thinks of them as real, but the fact that Edeltraut turns out to be a random opportunist rather than her birth mother leaves the door open for a “good” birth mother to eventually show up. When we leave Annika, she no longer particularly cares about this, but I think The Star of Kazan would have had more thematic resonance if the family that tried to take advantage of Annika were her biological one after all. This is something that happens in the real world – sometimes the people who are connected to you by blood are sadly not the best people for you to grow up around – and it would have been great to see the narrative acknowledge it.

But this didn’t at all detract from my love for The Star of Kazan: it’s a charming, uplifting novel, peopled with three-dimensional characters you grow to really care about. I haven’t even told you about the secondary characters (which include the Eggharts’ old great-aunt, a former circus performer that Annika befriends; her friends Zed and Pauline; and Rocco the horse), but as customary in Ibbotson’s novels they’re some of the best features.

Eva Ibbotson tends to present, as Fiona so well puts it, a “rose-tinted view of the world” in her novels; but this doesn’t really bother me because the comfort her books provide doesn’t come at the expense of anything vital. Her novels are not perfect, but they invariably have their heart in the right place. Going along with her brand of romance and glamour doesn’t require me to gloss over or be complicit in anything that horrifies me; it doesn’t reduce the world to anything I can’t buy into in good conscience. Also, I love the fact that her happy endings are so democratic: happiness doesn’t just come for the chosen ones, but for every one of her characters. Even the villains get their chance at redemption, and if there’s a bad situation (for example, in The Star of Kazan there’s a horrifying Jane Eyre-esque boarding school), she solves it for everyone instead of simply extracting her heroine from it. Her novels are kind, generous and big-hearted in the sense that they don’t require their characters to prove their worth before they give them a second chance. And that’s exactly why I find them so comforting.

Interesting bits:
But Annika was a person. She was real and she was nice – and she would lose her battle. They would turn her into someone who thought she had a God-given right to rule others. In a few weeks or months the friendly, helpful girl would become a stuck-up little madam; she would speak like Herman, and stamp her feet if she didn’t get her way.
And this, because I absolutely love the way Eva Ibbotson writes about music:
At first Annika did not like the sound they made; it was so different from the lilting Viennese waltzes she was used to. This music attacked you; it was fierce and angry… at least it was at first; she listened to it with clenched hands. Then suddenly one of the fiddlers stepped forward and played a melody that soared and wreathed and fastened itself round the heart – a sad tune that sounded as if it was gathering up all the unhappiness in the world – and then the other musicians joined in again and it was a though the sadness had been set free. The music was no longer about life being sad and lonely. It was about life being difficult, but also exciting and surprising and sublime.

Reviewed at: Dear Author, The Cheap Reader, Waking Brain Cells

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12 comments:

bermudaonion said...

Yet another author I need to try.

April (BooksandWine) said...

I find those kind of endings comforting too, especially on bad, long days.

I'll have to read this in the deep of winter, there's just something about falling snow, tea and a comfort read.

Amy said...

This sounds absolutely wonderful. I need to try some Ibbotson.

jessicabookworm said...

Sounds delightful! I really must read some more Ibbotson soon. My mother has loads of her books I might have to borrow some the next time I visit!

Charlie said...

I've wanted to read Ibbotson for a while but had no idea where to start (I've picked out books when it was a vague plan, but now cemented I haven't a clue). I like the use of class here, and the way the problems are solved so it seems this would be a good pick. Plus that cover is gorgeous.

Steph said...

I've read several books by this author and enjoyed the character development and charm. I never paid particular attention to her treatment of social class, though looking back, I can see that it was there. That definitely makes this writer seem even more interesting to me.

Iris said...

As I mentioned on twitter, this was a lovely and very thoughtful review. I have not read this particular book, but I think many of the things you express can be found in her other books as well. I particularly liked this paragraph:

"Her novels are not perfect, but they invariably have their heart in the right place. Going along with her brand of romance and glamour doesn’t require me to gloss over or be complicit in anything that horrifies me; it doesn’t reduce the world to anything I can’t buy into in good conscience. Also, I love the fact that her happy endings are so democratic"

Yes to all of that. Except that, of course, I couldn't quite capture it into words like you can. Thank you for that.

Aarti said...

I know you and Jill and Jenny really like Ibbotson but every time I read a synopsis of one of her books, I can't help thinking that it would be too saccharine for me. Jill mentioned that all her heroines are absolutely gorgeous and kind and perfect, and I think that would probably bother me.

Kristi said...

I found a lovely copy of this at a charity shop a couple of weeks ago and picked it up because I knew you loved Eva Ibbotson and had yet to give her a try. I'm so excited to get to it now.

Kristen M. said...

I also picked up a used copy of this recently so I am now even more excited to read it! Z and I are reading Dial-a-Ghost together right now for RIP (last year it was The Great Ghost Rescue). We're slowly becoming big Ibbotson fans!

Kailana said...

I really need to read this author...

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Kathy: Yes you do :P

April: Yep - or months when you're surrounded by boxes and hoping you won't have to move again for a very long while :P

Amy: This would be a good one to start with, but then again, that's true of all the books of hers I've read so far.

Jessica: Very convenient :D Yes, do borrow some!

Charlie: Anywhere, really! My favourites so far are The Secret Countless and The Morning Gift, if that helps.

Steph: It was a discussion with a blogging friend that made me focus on that aspect of her writing more, and it's been so interesting to see how it's portrayed in different books.

Iris: You know I'm going to say that yes, of course you could, right? :P

Aarti: She's not for everyone (same as any writer, really), but I think there's a dark side to her books that keeps them from ever becoming really saccharine, you know? Her books are fairy tale-esque in the non-Disney sense of the word - they acknowledge the darkness in the world and the fact that life can be hard and really unfair. And there's the humour too - her writing doesn't take itself too seriously and that makes a big difference for me.

Kristi: Hooray! I can't wait to hear what you think?

Kristen: I'm happy to hear that :D Dial a Ghost is in the Ibbotson boxed set my boyfriend gave me a while ago, along with all her other books for younger readers. I can't wait to dive into them.

Kailana: Indeed :P