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Cider With Rosie
7.30.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

When I first pick up a book I often feel this little burst of excitement and anticipation. Before I start to read, the book has unlimited potential, and as I begin, the first few lines seem magical and perfect — after all, they could be the first lines of the greatest story I have ever read. But all too often that little thrill disappears as I settle into the routine of reading. I begin to take it for granted. And the more words I read, the less chance the book has of fulfilling that infinite potential it once possessed.

I began Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie with the same sense of excitement and possibility as always, but this time that feeling stayed with me right through the book. Each word I read left me anticipating the next and every sentence seemed magical and perfect, not just the first few. I devoured it in two days and I was left it feeling intensely satisfied. For once, a book had fulfilled its potential completely. Maybe it wasn't the greatest story I've ever read, but it was - in its own small way - perfect.

I was surprised by my reaction to this book. It's not the type of story I would have expected myself to enjoy. It's autobiographical, and deals with Lee's childhood, growing up in a little village in the West of England at the end of the First World War. But Lee tells his story so beautifully that I couldn't help but love it.

Lee is a poet, and this book is a prose-poem. It tells its story in a straightforward, simple way, but every word is exquisitely chosen and placed. Someone defined poetry as "the best words in the best order," and that's how this story is told. I could open the book at a random page, pick any sentence, and be awestruck by it. Let's try it now:

"Long tongues of shadows licked the curves of the fields and the trees turned plump and still." (p. 70)

"So in the ample night and the thickness of her hair I consumed my fattened sleep, drowsed and nuzzling to her warmth of flesh, blessed by her bed and safety." (p. 27)

"The last time we'd met, I'd hit her with a cabbage stump." (p. 208)

Okay, so maybe it doesn't always work, but you get the idea.

The book deals with all aspects of Lee's childhood: it describes his family, his friends, his school, his neighbours, and his village.

Lee's village was a place that "cast up beasts and spirits as casually as human beings...There was the Death Bird, the Coach, Miss Barclough's Goose, Hangman's House, and the Two-Headed Sheep."

Of this last, Lee says:

"There is little remarkable about a two-headed sheep, except this one was old and talked English. It lived alone among the Catswood Larches, and was only visible during flashes of lightning. It could sing harmoniously in a double voice and cross-question itself for hours; many travellers had heard it when passing that wood, but few, naturally enough, had seen it. Should a thunderstorm ever have confronted you with it, and had you had the presence of mind to inquire, it would have told you the date and the nature of your death - at least so people said. But no one quite relished the powers of this beast. And when the sheep-lightning flickered over the Catswood trees it was thought best to keep away from the place."

The magic and innocence of childhood mingle with the harsh realities of life in a poor village in the West of England. Suicide, murder, poverty and sickness are all dealt with. Lee describes both these extremes with equal skill, effortlessly blending the two, making the fantasies seem real, and the realities fantastical.

Lee himself barely survived childhood. He was constantly ill, and one chapter describes a fevered delirium more intense and terrifying than anything in Trainspotting (the chapter, coincidentally enough, is entitled "Sick Boy").

The book ends with Lee as an adolescent; both he and his village are changing rapidly: "The last days of my childhood were also the last days of the village. I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years' life." Lee himself died in 1997, but Cider With Rosie is only the beginning of his story. It is the first book of an autobiographical trilogy, and I'm already looking forward to reading the other two, which deal with his experiences in London and then in the Spanish Civil War.

Cider With Rosie is a simple story, beautifully told. It is poetry and storytelling at their finest, and a pleasure to read.

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