For those readers who might expect An Episode of Sparrows to be a retelling of The Secret Garden, it most certainly isn’t one. Certainly it shares themes, for instance, the power of a garden and how it can help bring about a sense of peace through unified effort. Though while Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel ends with a change of heart and a true coming together, Godden’s novel doesn’t. Godden describes real children, children the reader can easily picture in their surroundings—post-WWII working-class London.
Godden’s “sparrows” are exactly that—they’re urchins. Snotty-nosed, dirty misfits up to all kinds of mischief and wickedness...robbing, stealing, gang turf warfare. They’re a mess. My favorite character was little Sparkey, the five year-old sickly, spindly legged boy who so desperately wants to be a part of Tip Malone’s gang:
Besides being ambitious, Sparkey was melodramatic; he frightened the other children. ‘Do you know what gravy is?’ he would ask, hushed, and when they shook their heads he would say in a cold voice, ‘It’s blood.’
I love him!
Lovejoy, the novel’s “protagonist,” is the worst of the lot. Used, neglected and abandoned by her cabaret-singing/prostitute mother she lacks conscience. She rarely attends school and can barely read. Whatever she sees and wants, she must have regardless of whatever means she needs to use to take it. She’s completely ruthless. Yet she has soulful, wounded eyes. Picture a very young Grizabella the Glamour Cat, careworn and shabby, trying her best to look her best in clothes that no longer fit and are wearing thin. Vincent, the husband of Lovejoy’s landlord, sees something in her, as well as Tip Malone and spinster Olivia Chesney. Vincent does his best for Lovejoy, but like her he’s being slowly drowned by his own ambitions. On the other hand, bad boy Tip tries to become her reformer, but at the hand of wily, old pro Lovejoy, he becomes a malleable piece of clay. The “reforming” seems to be done by Tip’s own hand. ;) (Zola’s Nana could have learned a few tricks from Lovejoy.)
Like The Secret Garden, there is a sense of spiritual growth in Godden’s novel. Here, the garden serves as a catalyst for personal growth. Through his conversations with Lovejoy, Tip sowed some seeds to help her develop a sense of conscience. But like a seedling, it’s still a very fragile thing. At the end, the reader can still sense Lovejoy’s wild streak, though it is somewhat tempered. It’s realistic, which I loved.
All in all, An Episode of Sparrows is quite a remarkable work.