“I remember the exact day when England became me, when its contours cleaved to the curves of my own body, when its inclinations became my own. As a girl, on a bike ride through the Surrey lanes, pedaling in my cotton dress through the hot fields blushing with poppies, freewheeling down a sudden dip into a cool wooded sanctum where a stream ran beneath the flint-and-brick bridge. Coming to a stop, the brakes squealing from the work of plucking one still moment out of time. Throwing my bicycle down into a pungent cushion of cow parsley and wild mint, and sliding down the plunging bank into the clear cold water, my sandals kicking up a quick brown bloom of mud from the streambed, the minnows darting away into the black pool of shade beneath the bridge. Pressing my face into the water, with time utterly suspended, drinking in the cool shock. And then, looking up and seeing a fox. He was sunning himself on the far bank, watching me through a feathery screen of barley. I looked back at him , and his amber eyes held mine. The moment, the country: I realized it was me. I found a soft patch of wild grass and cornflower by the side of the barley field, and I lay down with my face close to the damp earthen smell of the grass roots, listening to the buzzing of the summer flies. I cried, but I didn’t know why.”
The passage above is the only place where the bicycle explicitly appears, but the cyclist may be surprised to discover layered and reverberating reasons for the cycling life while reading through this remarkable book about two vibrant and heroic young women. The second young woman is quoted above, but the first, and by far the most brilliantly appealing of the two, tells most of the story herself with a verve and humour and stubborn joy that lifts her words from the page.
So curious, don’t you think, that the second woman’s moment of identity with the country of her birth happens while riding a bike? The freedom of movement and dawning independence on a vehicle that takes her into the land of her birth rather than over it. There is no separation between that permeable cotton dress and the hot summer air above blushing poppies.
The Washington Post reviewer snips that the cover is “cutesy” and the book-flap description “coy,” because it refuses to retell the plot and leaves the unfolding to the book itself. And then, like too many other over-righteous reviewers, proceeds to rectify this failing and tell exactly what does happen. In flat and formulaic phrases.
Do yourself a favour and read no other reviews. Read the book.
Or if you must – this review – the only one that dances to the tune set by the book itself.
(Published also in Britain under the title, The Other Hand.)