I’m not exactly sure when I first read Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, I know that it was a course book that I read at school when I was young. The copy which I still have is from when I was 14, it’s one of the few books that has survived my various moves around the UK and Europe. And although I first read it as a child, it’s one of those books that I have come back to again and again as I grew older because with each reading it offered up something new and interesting to me.
I still think that the opening of the book is one of the most evocative I’ve read. I’m immediately lost with the three year old Lee as he crawls through the forest like grass of the garden of the cottage that his large family has just moved to. The sense of wonder and fearfulness of being that age is perfectly captured and is a truly startling achievement and more than that it has always encapsulated for me the perfect summer we always imagine we experienced as young children.
From this powerhouse start the book flies, painting a detailed picture of growing up in the English countryside between the two world wars, where many things have not changed for centuries, but are on the cusp of being swept away forever. The structure of the book adds to its power, there is no clear narrative structure, no chapters to define a narrative arc, rather Lee presents a series of intense snapshots and moments. This approach gives everything a sheen of realism because who really remembers their lives in a structured way, rather our lives are a series of moments that we try to string together to form some sort of comfortable narrative.
The other source of strength in the book is that this is not a saccharine reimagining of a childhood. To use a hackneyed phrase all life is here in its splendour and horror. There is casual cruelty that only children can inflict on each other and developing sexuality that is charmingly innocent, counterbalanced by darker more brutal moments. There are jealousies, feuds, poverty, a suicide or two and even a murder. All this is absorbed by Laurie Lee as he grows without judgement, with acceptance that this is how life and people are, good, bad, indifferent, warm, cold and always surprising.
The Cotswold village of Slad feels real and as you read you begin to feel part of the community because Lee’s writing is full of truth and honesty, it also helps that it is also full of lyricism. You feel the comfort, warmth and sense of belonging that his large, mainly female family give him, you become caught up in the antagonistic but symbiotic relationship of the widowed neighbours that live either side of his family’s cottage, you sense the excitement of the village trip to the seaside, you become a resident of Slad.
Ultimately, this is a book about remembrance and to lift a quote from another great book about childhood, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.
Did it make you remember your childhood?