Clara lives in the small community of Sycamore Hill, overlooking a fishing village. Her native island seems very like Jamaica, where Kereen Getten’s introductory note tells us she grew up. Twelve year-old Clara says that nothing ever happens on Sycamore Hill, so we can be sure that’s not going to last much longer.
Her best friend is Gaynah, with whom she falls in and out; currently, she’s more out than in. Some days, Clara plays games the Hill children invented and have always played with a few friends she’s grown up with. More often, she and Gaynah spend time together in their secret places around the Hill. Her hard-working Mama is loving in a strict kind of a way, while her Papa is a fisherman and one of the unofficial leaders of the community. Higher up the Hill in a large old house, Clara’s mysterious uncle lives alone. Pastor Brown calls him a witch-doctor; and her parents forbid her to visit him. We might guess she will before long.
Readers might also wonder about another mystery. For some reason, Clara has no memory of what happened when she was playing in the sea last year. Something has left her terrified of the water, though her friends try to help her with that. Life on the Hill begins to change when Rudy and her mother arrive for a visit from London, staying with irritable old Ms Gee. Rudy’s about Clara’s age and her playful imagination knows no limits; Clara loves the new freedoms of her company. Even so, the tranquil, local pace of things nudges along until well into the second half of the book. Then, at the suggestion of Pastor Brown and without any warning to Clara, Mama and Papa drive her into town to an appointment with a bishop to see if he can help with whatever it is that’s troubling her. He can’t – he doesn’t listen and the visit does more harm than good. Papa sees it’s down to him to spend time helping his own daughter and before long, partly through an encounter with that mysterious uncle, the truths come tumbling onto the page. Even the weather turns stormy to mirror the revelations. No spoilers here, but startled readers may feel – as I did – that at this point they need to re-read what’s gone before to check for clues we must surely have missed. Here and there, Getten does plant some submerged hints, though hardly enough to prepare us for the shock she has in store for us. Our view of Clara, her friends, her uncle up the hill – all shift dramatically as facts emerge. A gentle story of rural life on a Caribbean island is suddenly taut with uncertainty.
Happily, the story evolves into one of healing; not only for Clara, but for her parents, her uncle, for old and young throughout the community. Pushkin’s declared aim is ‘to share tales from different languages and cultures with younger readers and to open the door to the wide, colourful worlds these stories offer’. This tale is deceptively