Another country

11th November 1994 at 00:00
The Herring Girls. By Theresa Tomlinson, Julia MacRae Pounds 9.99. 1 85681 169 7. The Rope School .By Sam Llewellyn, Walker Books Pounds 4.99.0 74452102 5. Timothy of the Cay. By Theodore Taylor, Viking Pounds 8.99.0 670 85380 1. Gillian Cross looks at the different ways three novelists approach the past.

Theresa Tomlinson's forte is the loving recreation of the texture of ordinary lives. The Herring Girls tells the story of 13-year-old Dory, who works as a herring-gutter in Whitby at the beginning of this century. It is, deliberately, not an exceptional story. Everything that happens to Dory must have happened to real herring girls, and there are no clever twists in the plot, and no great surprises. This is entirely appropriate. The romance of the book lies not in Dory's individual experiences but in the herring trade itself.

As it is, the details - Dory's heavy boots, the cotton strips for wrapping her hands, the fish guts that spatter her - take on their own poetry, underlined by that of the contemporary photographs which illustrate the book. Such deceptively plain truthfulness is not easy to achieve, but Theresa Tomlinson does it admirably, communicating her feelings for that harsh, vanished life.

Sam Llewellyn in The Rope School has quite different aims and preoccupations. For him, the past is not a lost country, to be evoked with nostalgia, but a flamboyant backdrop. Kate, his heroine, disguises herself as a boy and, against her will, finds herself joining the crew of a naval sloop in the Napoleonic Wars. There is plenty of detail and the bravura descriptions of Kate's climbs in the rigging are enough to give anyone vertigo, but historical detail is not the point of the book. It sets out to be an intricate, rip-roaring tale of spying and suspicion, with a fine sea battle and a threatened execution for Kate. Sadly, however, the story is not as good as the background. The reader is encouraged to expect complexity and intricacy, but when the mystery is finally unravelled, the explanations are feeble and unconvincing beside the reality of the setting. The reader is left feeling, resentfully, that the author is more interested in a well-made knot than in what ought to be a well-constructed plot.

In Timothy of the Cay, Theodore Taylor has gone back in time to tell the story of Timothy, the old black seaman from his earlier novel, The Cay. In a series of scenes, spanning almost 60 years, he follows Timothy from the Caribbean of the 1880s, where he is raised by an ex-slave, to the cay of the first book, where he is marooned and dies. Timothy is determined and hard-working, but because he is poor, and born in the aftermath of slavery, his horizons and opportunities are restricted and he ends as a shabby old seaman with little to show for his achievements.

That is only half the picture, however, because his story is intercut with that of Phillip, the blinded boy with whom he was marooned in The Cay. Before dying, Timothy taught Phillip how to survive on his own, until his eventual rescue. This new book opens with that rescue. As he struggles to readjust to normal life and regain his sight, Phillip feels that he is still in touch with Timothy and, to him, Timothy is "my guardian angel" and "probably the wisest man I'll ever know". His understanding of the shabby old seaman's nobility casts quite a different light on the events of Timothy's life. They seem like preparations for the time on the cay and the reader can see how they developed Timothy's strengths and how he became what he was because of the particular period of history into which he was born.

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