cover image The Village by the Sea

The Village by the Sea

Paula Fox. Orchard Books (NY), $17.99 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-531-08388-8

Emma, 10, is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle during her father's bypass surgery. With her constant, caustic jibes and her sudden, braying laugh, Aunt Bea lives up to her reputation as a ``terror''; in Emma's words, ``Aunt Bea's remarks about people were like being punched in the same spot over and over again.'' Emma overhears exchanges that reveal Bea's history as an alcoholic; she is perceptive enough to recognize her Uncle Crispin's fear of a relapse, to note occasional chinks in Bea's armor and to grasp that Bea has developed the habit of resentment``a kind of addiction, too.'' Acting out her malice, Bea destroys Emma's sole object of pleasure during her visita miniature village built with her friend Bertie from material scavenged on the beachand Emma departs with a hot lump of hatred in her throat. Her hatred dissolves, however, upon finding evidence of her aunt's bitter, sad self-knowledge; in its place comes a measure of understanding and the ability to take her first untroubled breath in days. Fox's mastery of characterization is fully apparent in this quiet but intensely affecting story. She deftly draws us into Emma's experience, perfectly capturing the simultaneous naivete and wisdom with which Emma regards the puzzle that is her aunt. Using simple but telling imagery and beautifully lucid prose, she traces the associative, instinctively hopeful workings of a child's mind. Equally remarkable are the nuances with which Fox renders the acerbic, seemingly impenetrable Bea. Her portrayal compels readers to consider the tragic consequences of such acrimonyto wonder, as Emma does, what it would be like ``to be a person people were happy not to see,'' and ultimately to share in the subtle but redemptive compassion that is among the novel's finest achievements. A Richard Jackson Book. Ages 10-12. (September)