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.