The Cambridge Geek

A Pocketful of Crows - Joanne Harris

This is the tale of a nameless wild girl, the "bonny brown girl" of the woods, who lives her life as one of the travelling folk, away from "civilisation". She can shapeshift, becoming one with the birds and the beasts of the land, and forages and hunts for her food in order to maintain her peaceful life in the woods. Like most of her people, she lives in solitude, rarely encountering others of her ilk, happy to keep to herself in a rough-hewn hut in the forest.

Until the troublesome day she encounters William, a local feudal lord's son, who catches her eye and wins her heart. So begins a brief but powerful romance, as she tempts him with her exotic nature and he tries to give her the full Pygmalion treatment, softening her wild edges and teaching her how to behave in proper society. Of course, they're chalk and cheese, so it may all end terribly.

The story takes its inspiration from "The Brown Girl", one of the Child Ballads, and a verse of this is given before each part of the book, which is broken down into the months of the year. (Fair warning, that wikipedia synopsis probably counts as spoilers.)

It's a very lyrical book, with language that winds itself around the flora and fauna in which the nameless girl makes her life, at moments being almost poetic. The descriptions given to the changing of the seasons and the response of the local village people form a vivid picture. The cycle of the year is tied to the story in a very clever manner, building on the original ballad.

That's matched with a story that is great fun to follow. The girl's descent into love and crawling her way out of it is a delight, and the sharpness of her claws, even when not in the body of a fox, give her revenge plot a pleasing tartness. The story is at its strongest when she's active, taking care of her own destiny, rather than buffeted by the forces of society, which in this case

The emotional rollercoaster she goes through is unexpectedly convincing, for someone who doesn't really like romance plots. The small details put into the different lusts and hates rather made that, I think, both in the protagonist and her romantic rival. It all builds to a mostly satisfying climax, though the last page or two annoyed me. For something that had done a fairytale-ish but grubbily real story, it suddenly throws itself off the cliff into a pagan wiki page, which I found a bit frustrating. Still, the journey there is very enjoyable.

Score 4

Tagged: Book Historical fantasy Horrible humans Novella Print