Child narrators of adult novels are high-risk and high-reward creations. It is nearly three decades since Roddy Doyle won the Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The wit and power of that novel have to do with the fact that its hero is ten years old and has a constantly surprising and entirely plausible view of the world, unshared by the adults around him but relished by readers. Crucially, the novel lacks any taint of an adult perspective: the narrative swings between a comically pedantic account of Paddy’s childish world and increasingly baffled references to his parents’ disintegrating marriage.
Sadie Jones’s latest novel attempts something similar, for all that it involves two children from two marriages and is set in the 2000s rather than the late 1960s, and on an English West Country farm rather than a north Dublin suburb. Amy and Lan, both seven when the book opens in 2005, take turns telling the story of life at Frith, a series of loosely connected farm buildings to which three city-based couples – already friends – have come in joint determination to live, as far as they can, off the land. Amy and Lan are the eldest children in the not-quite commune (the families have separate kitchens, but high days and holidays are celebrated together); they are inseparable and indistinguishable, despite being given biographically distinguishing marks. Both narrators refer to ‘the Dads’ and ‘the Mums’, but the reader soon learns that Amy’s mother is the fiercely loving and dependable Harriet, while Lan’s mother, Gail, a homeopath, is always tired. Also, Amy has two biological parents at Frith whereas Lan has to make do with a stepfather, Jim. Jim is invariably kind, patient and available. Amy reports early on that he is ‘definitely the best grown-up for saying things. My dad’s the best for being silly and playing. The Hodges aren’t best for anything. But they’re sensible. Which is good, I suppose.’
Do seven-year-olds really divide the world thus? Maybe. These characterisations remain more or less fixed as five years unfold and our child narrators record the high points of their lives, which they think of as the best of all possible lives. There are Halloween parties and solstice festivals, the