Julia Green’s new novel will resonate with readers in ways she can’t have envisaged while she was writing it. Isabella lives in Italy with her parents, a normal life full of ordinary happiness, often shared with her best friend, Marta. All changes suddenly and forever when bombs explode in her city. ‘They’ – we never know who – are targeting transport hubs, bridges, historic monuments, ‘wiping out the past’. Isabella and her father leave the next day to head for her grandparents’ home in the north of England. Her mother and big sister will follow.
England too is suffering. A strange sickness has killed many of the population, food is scarce, power supplies unreliable, and those left alive are suspicious of strangers. Isabella’s grandparents are long gone but their house is still there in a remote and beautiful valley. When her father sets off to find food and a means to contact her mother, Isabella stays on her own, living on their supplies until she meets two other children, also living alone and hiding out in an old barn. Rowan and Kelda show her what to eat, what to grow, share eggs from their hens. Their friendship sustains her, but just as important is the natural world and the beauty of her surroundings. It’s surely no coincidence that the title of the book brings to mind Swallows and Amazons, and the story reminds us too of other classic children’s novels in which nature is a force that heals and restores. After the terror of the bombing, and fears for her family, Isabella develops a sense of calm and hope, something readers will absorb even as we experience life during a pandemic. Beautifully told, this adventure story does more than keep the pages turning, though it will certainly do that. It vividly demonstrates to readers the beauty and importance of nature and how connecting with it is our real hope for the future.