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4.4 out of 5 stars
The Orchard on Fire
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 4 May 2005
'The Orchard on Fire' chronicles events in 1953 in the life of eight-year old April Harlency, whose parents have recently moved to the village of Stonehenge in Kent to run a tearoom. She becomes best friends with fiery, tomboyish Ruby, whose parents are proprietors of the local pub, and together they share experiences with an array of village characters including creepy Mr Greenridge; strict schoolmistress Miss Fay; bohemian artists Dittany Codrington and Bobs Rix, and village communists, the Silver family.
Mackay's writing is simply beautiful: there were many occasions when I re-read whole paragraphs to savour the language. 'The Orchard on Fire' brilliantly evokes village life in the '50s through convincing period details, dialogue and - most of all - development of a diverse range of characters whose mindsets mirror the values and behaviours of the times. Without excessive nostalgia, Mackay transports the reader back to arguably gentler, more innocent times - whilst warning of social evils that may lurk beneath the veneer of respectability. In a market-place awash with novels depicting childhood experiences, 'The Orchard On Fire' stands out for its realism and honesty and, above all, elegantly-crafted prose.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 8 May 2001
I simply love this book! Shena McKay has the most magnificent eye for detail, and managed to evoke memories from my own childhood through her characters. Although the story was told through the eyes of April, much of it focussed on her love for her best friend, the sparky and ebullient, Ruby. Their friendship was exemplary and the girls remained strong and resilient despite suffering abuse at the hands of adults in their lives. I enjoyed the accurate details used to illustrate the childrens imaginative play, e.g. using a red smartie for lipstick etc.. and was heartened by the joy shown by the children when presented with simple gifts such as a shiny pencil or a plastic bracelet! Even though the book tackles serious issues of child abuse, the story is told with much humour and Ruby and April's frank observations, and childlike interpretations of events were hilarious. I would guess the story was based on a real friendship, as the characters were well developed and believable. This book made me laugh in many parts and I felt sad at the very end....that was partly because it ended ! Do read it.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 19 December 2002
In my opinion, this is Shena MacKay's best novel. In Coronation Year, Betty and Percy Harlency, with their small daughter, April, move from London to a small village in Kent called Stonebridge, to take over The Copper Kettle Tearoom. The Copper Kettle is a charming, but not financially prosperous, establishment.
When April meets the tomboyish, fiery, ginger-haired Ruby, their friendship is instantly sealed. The girls are staunch allies who conspire together in every way possible. Their secret signal is the "lone cry of the peewit;" their hideaway is a railway carriage where they are continually up to mischief. When the two girls finally manage to pry open the door of the carriage they stand and gaze "in the smell of trapped time."
It is this smell of trapped time, this nostalgia for the emotions of the past, that The Orchard on Fire conjures so expertly. MacKay is reminiscent of Proust in this extraordinarily evocative novel and we feel intimately connected to April and to her emotional life. MacKay, usually a brilliant writer, excels in The Orchard on Fire and we can hear the buzz of the insects and the bluebottles, smell the overgrown weeds and the lush summer grass and picture the family's new home at The Copper Kettle.
The small English village where April lives is a bit unconventional as are April's parents; the duo are unlikely political radicals and MacKay manages to introduce a Bohemian element into the story in the gentle, pretentious artist characters of Bobs Rix and Dittany Codrington, who is "like the Willow Fairy in Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker."
One of the best sections of this wonderfully-written book comes when The Copper Kettle is chosen to host a weekend party for Bobs and Dittany and their artist friends. For a time, Stonebridge is awash in fairy lights and the pink glow of nostalgia.
Although some may dismiss The Orchard on Fire as overly-sentimental, it is nothing but. Child abuse plays a part is this masterfully-written story as does sexual perversion, bringing to mind scenes of Pip in Great Expectations. We become deeply immersed in April's world, and in her fears and expectations, most particularly her horror at losing a cherished Christmas present.
Although this novel tells us more of April then just her childhood, it is childhood that is most strongly evoked in all of its trouble and all of its glory. The adult April is but a shadow of the child April and we, who grew up with her, know why.
The Orchard on Fire is Shena MacKay at her finest and one of the most wonderful and atmospheric books I have ever read. It is a glorious, heady plunge into the world of childhood that will never be forgotten.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 13 December 2000
This is a wonderful, unput-downable book, the first I've read by Shena MacKay but it definitely won't be the last! The book's heroine, April, returns to the village where she grew up in the fifties and reflects on the years of her childhood that she spent there. The book is filled with larger than life characters - April's parents who run the village tea-shop, the creepy Mr Greenridge, who is obsessed with April and, most of all, her best friend in the whole world, Ruby. It's about friendship and family and growing up and it really makes you think (and cry!). It reminded me very much of both 'The Go-Between' by L P Hartley, which is one of my favourite books and 'Behind the Scenes At the Museum' by Kate Atkinson. It's funny and touching and beautifully written. Lead me to the next Shena MacKay novel, please!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The book's basic structure is a familiar one; the main story being framed by the narrator, April, speaking from the perspective of the present day. The novel starts with a brief but telling picture of a tightly organised but somewhat bleak middle-aged life, and ends by a physical as well as an emotional re-visit to the Kentish village of her childhood. In between lies a resolutely unsentimental picture of a rural childhood and an account of the birth and growth of friendship between 8-year olds which rang more true than any I have read for a long time. April's parents move to Stonebridge after failing in running a succession of London pubs. The couple themselves are very fully realized characters, meticulously avoiding stereotypes and, one suspects, surprising their creator at times as well as the reader. A novel without any conflict would hardly qualify for the name, and there is conflict here, partly in the form of April's friend's family, who could define the term 'dysfunctional', and partly in the form of the apparently charming and gentlemanly Mr. Greenidge, who lies in wait in Lovers Lane for a kiss (or more) from April, all the while waiting for his ailing wife to die. There are also some fine comic set-pieces - albeit mostly black comedy. There are Bobs and Dittany, the 'Arts and Crafts' ladies who inhabit the former orphanage, causing some wonder on the part of the more naive village inhabitants about their inexplicable lack of husbands; a pair of identical professors, one of whom comes to a sticky end in a wheelbarrow; the inconvenient turkey, abandoned on Christmas Eve on the butcher's doorstep. In different hands, this could be little more than the most irritating kind of nostalgia - a nostalgia for a Golden English era which never existed. However, MacKay is a far finer writer than this, and every episode, every character, every joke is another opportunity for a insight into how people are not all of a piece, they act out of character, and the best of us can behave in the worst ways, just as the worst of us are capable of the best. And underneath it all, the fierce ties and obligations of friendship.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 April 2005
Nostalgia has the effect of painting the past in vivid colours that make the present seem pallid in comparison. Shena Mackay uses this contrast to lend poignancy to her account of rural England in the 50s, "The Orchard On Fire". A frame story takes place in an anonymous, suburban present, where the narrator - April - leads a strangely unfulfilling life. The heart of the book, however, deals with a much more intensely experienced time in her life: when as a ten-year old she moved to a small village in Kent where her parents opened a pub.

"The Orchard On Fire" centres around the friendship between April and local red-head Ruby. The lightness of childhood friendship is shaded by the theme of child abuse, however, which at first made me slightly wary. Isn't it possible to write a book about childhood that doesn't include abuse? It can so easily seem like a shortcut for the author to prove that she has something important to say. However, Mackay's handling of the issue doesn't feel that way. A scene where April plays self-consciously in the garden of her abuser is touching without being manipulative.

As in many stories of childhood, the narrative meanders rather than following a clear-cut plot. Mackay's recollections of the details of nature and everyday life are shot through with that special sort of intensity that you only have as a child. Her language made me think in colours: Ruby's ginger hair, lime green plimsolls, autumn leaves.

In spite of its sometimes heavy subject matter, the style is never melodramatic. Mackay keeps matters both tender and straightforward, in the way that children deal with life. Is April's emotionally detached middle-age linked to the abuse she suffered as a child? Mackay leaves the question open. However, she does tie up some lose ends of the story at the end in a way that felt out of tune with the rest of this subtle book: overly sentimental, perhaps. It doesn't really change the overall impression left by this book, which opens up as a faded photo album; intimate, loving and with the gentle sorrow that time passes by.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 14 July 2002
This is a story of childhood friendship and village life in 50's England, seen through a young girl's eyes. Sheila Mackay manages to combine suspense and ill-boding with beautiful description of sentiment; at the end, I could hardly focus on the page through the tears. Once finished, you just want to pick the book up and start again.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 19 January 2001
I first read 'The Orchard on Fire' several years ago, and to this day, it still remains one of my favourites. This novel made me laugh and cry and was one of the most moving things that I have ever read. I must have read it about ten times now and I never grow bored and I would recommend it to anyone. This book deals with so many issues and though it is written through the eyes of the main character, as a grown woman, the childhood innocence that we all have, is still eminent. Shena MacKay not only has wonderful ideas, she knows how to put them to paper, the words flow so easily and at all times, it is a pleasure to read. There are so many words to describe it, beautiful, poignant, bittersweet, magical. I could go on forever as we witness the harshness that comes with youth, demonstrated so eloquently in 'The Orchard on Fire'. Everyone should read this book, it is a delight to read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 December 2000
The Orchard on Fire was a very interesting read It encompases the themes of true friendship and of growing up. April(the main character) and Ruby(her best friend) create a camp out of an old railway carriage to hide from the abuse they face. April is physcially and emotionally molsted by the "nice" Mr. Greenridge. Ruby is beaten by her father and verbally abused by her mother. Both of these girls face many obstacles; yet, their bond of friendship is all that matters. The book also offers a glimpse of life in 1950s England. This is a wonderfully written story that I would recommend to anyone.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 August 2013
You know how it is when you think back to your childhood... Somehow, no matter how bucolic and innocent it might seem to have been, you know in your heart that, even then, things were not that simple. Shena McKay's story of childhood spent in a Kentish village is very clear on that: The harsh unthinking words of adults, carelessly terrorising children; the hypocrisy of respectability; the dark and the light of human nature.
Anyone nostalgic for the 1950s and 60s might be shaken up by the revelation of deeds now criminalised, but then simply hidden away. Both the careless and the deliberate brutality, one accepted, the other denied.
It is a beautifully written, vivid story with prose which rolls around the tongue like the remembered sweets of childhood
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