Cora Ravenwing by Gina Wilson

I might as well start this review by pointing out that the book is almost certainly out of print, so the chances of you being able to pick up a copy with any ease are slim. And this is frankly a disgrace, because it's a deeply haunting children's novel that should be lauded as a classic.

I first read Cora Ravenwing when I was about nine or ten years old. I borrowed it from the library, read it once, was deeply affected by it, returned it to the library and never read it again. That was a quarter of a century ago. The fact that it stayed with me all that time, to the point where I eventually sought out a second-hand copy on eBay last week, is pretty indicative of the impression it made upon me.

Becky Stokes, now an adult, tells the story of a single year from her 1950s childhood, the year she moved from Birmingham to the Home Counties village of Okefield. On her family's first day in their new home, she finds Cora Ravenwing, a skinny, pale dark-haired girl hiding in their garden. Odd though Cora clearly is, Becky takes to her immediately. Unfortunately, the rest of the village, adults and children alike, treat Cora, the lonely, nature-loving gravedigger's daughter, as a dangerous outcast. When Becky is introduced to the accomplished, well-off would-be poet Hermione Phillips and invited to be part of her circle of friends, it's clear that Becky will have to make a choice between Cora and the other girls.

From that synopsis, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cora Ravenwing was just another misfits-v-popular-kids coming-of-age story. But it is so much more than that. For a start, the vehemence with which the adults in the village - the parents of Becky's more conventional friends, for example, and the Stokes' cleaner Mrs Briggs - dislike Cora disturbed me deeply as a child. It's one thing for children to turn against other children, but for a young girl to be ostracised by grown men and women with children of their own is quite another. Moreover, Cora's own story is peculiar to say the least: her free-spirited mother died shortly after her birth, and her grieving father gave her up, for a full eight months, to be wet-nursed by a local woman whose own baby had died of a cot death. That woman, it transpires, was Mrs Briggs.

One of the things that makes Cora Ravenwing unusual for a children's book is that the many injustices that occur in the novel are never corrected. Becky, alone among her friends and their parents, can see immediately the psychological reasons behind Mrs Briggs' hatred of Cora, a hatred which is likely at the root of this middle-class village's collective mistrust of an eccentric child, but nobody will listen to her. Nor will they believe her when she tries to tell them about Mrs Briggs' truly horrific actions when Becky and Cora are almost caught in a fire during one of their clandestine meetings. There's no happy ending to this story. Mrs Briggs gets away with something close to attempted murder, Cora remains the 'Devil Child' until the day she and her father disappear, the villagers laugh and thank God that 'the Ravenwings have flown', and Becky never sees her friend again. But even as an adult, Becky remembers Cora, and feels sure that one day, mysteriously, they'll meet again.

What most struck me about this book, both on my first reading as a child and now as an adult, is the ambiguity of the characters. Cora, for instance, is a disconcerting child. To be close to her dead mother, Cora spends hours in the graveyard, and it's only there that she becomes strangely animated, as if drawing strength from her sinister surroundings. The jackdaws in the belfry treat her like one of their own, and she spends most of her nights hiding alone in the woods with the badgers, unmissed by her depressed father and strangely unaffected by the lack of sleep. Even Becky is occasionally frightened by her. But is Cora really the witch that Becky sometimes secretly fears her to be, or are the rumours Becky hears about her subconsciously skewing her perceptions? Moreover, if Cora is not the village witch, could it be possible that someone else, a figure well-known and trusted throughout Okefield, is?

More than just a children's story, Cora Ravenwing is a masterful study of prejudice, small-mindedness and the way harmful rumours can spread through a tight-knit community - it's telling that Cora's teachers, all of whom are from outside the village, seem to find her perfectly likeable. Do class and the social norms of the day also have a part to play? Unlike Cora, Becky's friends have cleaners and au pairs and large, middle-class homes. At the school concert, Becky plays the piano and Hermione recites her self-penned poetry - but it's Cora who outshines them all singing her mother's folk songs, making Hermione's supposedly nature-influenced poems seem artificial and affected. Is strange, wild little Cora, a true child of nature who sees through Hermione's pretensions long before everyone else, perceived as threat to the rigid social conformity of 50s village life?

It's a terrifying though that had Cora been born a few hundred years before, the child would likely have been subjected to the ducking-stool once the wheels of the gossip-mill began turning. This was never far from my mind while I was reading, and perhaps that's partly why it stayed with me all these years.


Cora Ravenwing is an odd, unclassifiable little book. Scratch below the surface of the straightforwardly simple language of the narrative, though, and you'll find layer upon layer of ambiguity, complexity and hidden depth.

Comments

  1. I can't believe it, I just spent three hours of Sunday morning rereading Cora Ravenwing. It has been sitting on the shelf by the spare bed at my mother's house reminding me of something unresolved that I needed to return to. And that is exactly what I found when I read it into the dawn hours of Sunday.
    And with the temporal coincidence of my reading it and your writing this review, is my agreement with what you have written. It is a truly haunting book. I was struck by how mature it is, how adult Becky is, and how the reader is also treated as sophisticated.
    Another element that I found resonating for me through the book was the treatment of Georgia, the disruptive school girl, of whom no one can hear the mistreatment of her by her parents. In parallel with the blame situated with Cora for her abject status in the community, Georgia is also blamed for her status at school, and everyone is mystified. The very thought that her parents might be mistreating her is unthinkable.
    I also really liked the way in which Becky's relationship with her parents shift when she realises for the first time that her father is not a bastion of virtue, or location of truth, but doubts her and frightens her with his aggressive need for her to agree with him. It was a scary but recognisable moment.
    It is an ace book. Thanks for writing about it here. I look forward to reading more of what you have written.

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  2. Kirsty, wow, what a coincidence! I was starting to wonder if I was literally the only person who'd ever read it, as whenever I've mentioned it I've always been met with blank stares!

    I agree about Georgia's role in the book, and how utterly dismissive everybody was when Becky tries to tell them that she's being beaten up - it's unthinkable to them that someone who pops in for drinks with Mummy and Daddy could possibly be beating his daughter, and yet they are quite willing to believe that little girls might be 'born bad'. The injustice of it is quite shocking. It was telling that Georgia and Becky become close friends at their new school - it's almost as if Becky was able to make amends for the mistakes she made in her treatment of Cora by forming a friendship with another troubled girl who was somewhat outside the school equivalent of 'polite society'.

    Thanks for your perceptive comments, and I'm really pleased you enjoyed my review.

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  3. Dear Joanne:
    I am the editor of Faber Finds, an imprint for restoring neglected classic works to print, and I thought you'd be pleased to know that we will be reissuing 'Cora Ravenwing' in Finds later this year. I hope this will gratify existing fans of the book and bring it to the attention of new readers. I have a blog to support the Finds list (https://faberfinds.wordpress.com/) and I hope to link to your appreciation of Cora once we prepare to reissue the book. Please do have a look at what we're doing there.
    All good wishes,
    Richard T Kelly

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  4. Hi Richard,

    It's great to hear that Cora Ravenwing will be reissued - I really hope new readers pick it up and enjoy it. It's a book that really deserves to be read. Thank you for letting me know and I'd be delighted if you linked to my review.

    I love the idea of Faber Finds and will be following it with interest.

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  5. I'm 15 going on 16 from South Africa, and I had to read Cora Ravenwing last year for school. I must say, this book is one of the deepest, most touching books I've read yet. Cora is absolutely her own person, doesn't really care about the judgemental world around her and she is just so carefree! I aim to be like that somehow, too, but in my own way. Hermione and the rest of those high society residents are really just vain, shallow wallflowers, trying to blend in with the rest of this status-mad civilization and I suppose that is what makes her so off-putting. Becky is a bit selfish at the start, but I can understand her feelings at the end, when she sort of turns her back to the rest of the world. I would, too, if everyone put so much pressure on me about who I should be friends with and who not, how I should be and what I should change about myself. Besides, their friendship is very unique and special and I would love to have one like it, so it makes sense that she would go into rebel-mode if her selfish parents try to take it away from her. Her parents really should have tried to make an effort to understand her and not just think about themselves and what others might think of their daughter! It's a tragic story, but at least there's the hope for reconcilliation in the future perhaps. I LOVE this book, it's one of a kind!

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  6. I'm delighted that you enjoyed the book and it's great that it was on your school reading list - I really do think it's a neglected classic. Your comments are very perceptive, too. :-)

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  7. Spot on! Cora Ravenwing had a stronger hold on me than any other novel i read as a child. I am so pleased that it will be re-issued so that I can recommend it to all the children I work with at school, without having to lend my battered copy to each of them!

    And yes, I found this blog by Googling Cora Ravenwing...

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  8. I am so glad that someone else feels this way! When I checked this book out of my library, about 6 years ago, the last time it had been checked out was 10 years earlier. Though I have yet to reread it, it has definitely stuck with me almost in an uncomfortable manner.

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  9. Near enough two years after I first posted on this - and with apologies! - I'm pleased to say that Faber Finds will reissue CORA RAVENWING in paperback and ebook on June 18th 2013.
    http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/cora-ravenwing/9780571299966
    Our edition includes a new foreword by Gina Wilson in which she describes what inspired her to write CORA in the first place. We very much hope this will prove the dawn of a new generation of CORA admirers!

    Richard T Kelly (editor, Faber Finds)

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    Replies
    1. Richard, that's fantastic! I'll certainly be getting a copy. Thanks for dropping by to let us know.

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