There’s nothing quite out there that reaches Eva Ibbotson at her very best. She writes like buttery crumpets on a midwinter’s day; hot, fat moments that can be tasted on your tongue, warmth in every word and that magical storytelling quality that makes nothing else matter but the read. An Ibbotson book is a world-stopper sort of book, something that makes you unable to quite see clearly until it’s over and then you’re struck by that moment of absence, of severance from the story book world.
The Dragonfly Pool is one of my favourites of hers; a hybrid of a passionate, eccentric school story with a Ruritanian adventure, all of which takes place in the tight, tense dawn of the second world war. It’s a substantial book that flies by and so much of that is due to Ibbotson’s intensely delicious skill in writing; set pieces that sing, and moments that feel genuinely big and world-changing in their context.
The school in this book – Delderton Hall – is based on the progressive school that Ibbotson herself attended: Dartington Hall. For a little bit of background on the school itself, have a look at this achingly wistful and equally eye-opening article. Ibbotson describes the school as a school like no other and, many many years later, when I attended university at the same site, I first came across The Dragonfly Pool and realised that she was right. Dartington was magical. Unreal. And she catches that, she catches that twist of eccentricity, hope and oddity so beautifully.
It’s easy to read some of the more fanciful moments in this as naive or blindly idealistic, but I think there’s something more to it than that. I think that, in a way, The Dragonfly Pool is more of a polemic against evil and war itself; a treatise on how humanity is more than what it came to in that moment in 1939, and how hope and belief and friendship, sometimes, is one of the most powerful things in the world. It is one of those books with so much more in it than is immediately apparent, and the subtleties of it are there for those who want to see them. The roundness of her characters, the thick layers which are so lightly and skillfully revealed, will never fail to leave me both madly envious of and in love with her skills. Ibbotson is one of those authors who gives you a story that spirals and sings and touches the stars, and brings you along with every moment. There is such richness here.