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BGHB at 50: Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. Further installments will appear in the Magazine and on hbook.com/bghb throughout 2017.

Here is a conversation I had on the phone with my nineteen-year-old daughter, away at university in England, last week:
Sara: I had this dream I was back at work at Dunelm and I was late and—

Me: Oh! Dunelm! I just bought a sofa there!

Sara: You bought a SOFA? WHY?

Me: It is only a tiny one. It only cost £45. It is for the shed. Every time I’m working out there I think, I really need a sofa here—

Sara: Oh my gosh, you are just like Eve.

Eve Casson is the mother of the title character in Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, and Sara and I talk about the Cassons as if they were our friends. My husband, who never quite gets his head around this, always ends up asking: “Where do we know these people from?” Sara’s Goodreads reviews reflect this nebulous reality: one of them begins, “I love the Casson family. They are like cousins to me. I know my way around their house. My dad and Bill meet up for coffee sometimes in London..."

My copy of Saffy’s Angel (a paperback from Hodder Children’s Books, London, 2002) lives on the shelf of Sara’s special books right above the headboard of her bed (along with all of Hilary McKay’s other books). My name and phone number are written on the flyleaf because I once loaned the book to a recently widowed friend who’d wanted something uplifting to read. Some of the pages are dog-eared by Sara for reasons unknown, and I’ve dog-eared one page myself (the recipe for Brain Juice, “Coca-Cola with a great deal of instant coffee stirred into it”).

But only two passages are highlighted, both with an opaque lavender gel pen. The first highlighted passage is on page 8. Throughout pages 1 through 7, the third-person narration introduces all the Casson family from young Saffy’s perspective, and then on page 8 we get a glimpse into Eve Casson’s head. It’s a paragraph describing the trials of being an artistic mother with young children. This is the paragraph I circled, sometime back when my own children were toddlers and I was struggling to keep up with my own writing career. (I didn’t have a shed then.) The whole paragraph is outlined in purple magic marker with stars at the corners. It begins with Eve sobbing and ends, “She thought wistfully of the shed at the end of her garden, her favourite place in the world.” This paragraph still makes me tear up even though I have a shed with a sofa in it now.

If there is one single writer whose style and voice I wish I could capture and make mine, it’s Hilary McKay. My first encounter with her writing was in The Exiles, which I read as part of the recommended curriculum for Children’s Literature New England in Cambridge (England) in 1998. (Incidentally, I dragged Sara along to that Institute, age thirteen months, because I couldn’t go otherwise. I checked her into a local daycare center for the week.) I was utterly enchanted with McKay’s effortless prose, which to my ear sounded elegant and classically timeless; her quirky, active, endearing, and bookish characters; and the underlying thread of real tragedy that she managed to weave into the plot without being heavy-handed or distracting from the vibrant upbeat nature of the overall story.

These features characterize all her books, enriching even the slender, early ones. Saffy’s Angel, first published in 2001 and deservedly a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honor Book in 2002, is perhaps her most triumphant example. The first in a series (though it stands perfectly well on its own), it is fresh and exuberant in tone, yet told with the confidence of an experienced writer.

It’s over fifteen years old now, but I think Saffy’s Angel stands the test of time. It has aged well (almost not at all) — the mark of a true classic. The use of modern electronics is sketched in with a light and casual touch: they are there, but incidental to the story. It’s not obvious that most phone conversations take place over wires. There is a quaint reference to a hotel having to sort out a phone line to provide an Internet connection, but it’s so vague that if you don’t remember having to do this, you might not notice the reference. There are paper maps, but as the Cassons clearly aren’t equal to paying for a decent cell phone, it’s not jarring. And the cost of Rose’s sequined velvet-and-taffeta party dress, which she wears to her grandfather’s funeral, is still outrageous even today.

Saffy’s Angel is not my very favorite of McKay’s books (that would be Permanent Rose, whose Arthurian undertones and mystery hidden-in-plain-sight win my heart). But Saffy’s Angel is the best one to start with. It’s certainly the one I share most constantly, with both grown-ups and children — it’s like introducing people to your best friends. Saffy’s Angel also happens to contain the most hilarious prose of any book I have ever read, to the point where I actually find myself laughing aloud even when everyone in the story is sobbing and my own eyes are full of tears. The climactic road trip to Wales at the end of the book never fails to drag belly laughs out of me. Anticipating it, this time around, I was worried that it might not; but once again, I laughed so hard I could barely read, from the moment Caddy and Rose and Indigo got into the car — as fiercely determined as if they were setting off to war — armed with their maps and magic markers and blue plastic Sick Bowl.

I also think it is a magical achievement that in this book full of remarkable, personable children there is also a spectrum of remarkable, personable adults. Sarah’s father, who epitomizes the patronizing English tourist who doesn’t want to have to eat foreign food when abroad, is also tolerant and admiring and eager to get involved with the locals when he’s on vacation in Italy. Bill, the Casson children’s charismatic and utterly self-centered father, perhaps comes off the worst; but even he is painted with a fond hand, and he does acquire depth as the series goes on. Every one of McKay’s characters is likable. And every one is deeply flawed. As are most people.

*    *    *

Sara came to Saffy’s Angel at age ten. She’d read The Exiles (which had been sitting on my bookshelf since she was thirteen months old) and The Exiles at Home, and then, when she came to me demanding the final book in the series and I didn’t have it, I’d given her Saffy’s Angel to hold her off. Sara has now developed a special relationship with several books in the Casson family series — she re-reads Forever Rose in real time every December — but she has a soft spot for Saffy’s Angel. When I asked her about it recently, she said, “In one of my times of heightened anxiety, when I was scared of going to bed and had trouble getting to sleep, I listened to it each night.” As a result of countless repetitions of the audiobook of Saffy’s Angel (read by the actress Julia Sawalha, the “Saffy” of Absolutely Fabulous), certain lines from the book have percolated into our everyday speech and we don’t even realize we’re quoting them:

  • “Don’t call me darling, I’m a driving instructor!” (Used whenever anyone calls you “darling.”)

  • “You can’t just go round killing people.” (Numerous useful applications.)

  • “POOR FOX/SHE IS CRYING” (In the context of passing any roadkill.)

When I sat down to re-read Saffy’s Angel so I could write about it sensibly here, I found myself both laughing out loud and sobbing incoherently before I’d finished the first chapter. It is McKay’s ability to mix the sublime with the ridiculous that I adore. Real life is like that. If you ever have the unhappy experience of buying a coffin for a loved one, you will find that undertakers give you the exact same spiel as used-car salesmen. It is terrible and hilarious. But often, in trying to capture that in fiction, you are accused of irreverence or bathos. McKay manages to do it with love and warmth.

Often, she does it through a kind of sleight-of-hand. When Saffy finds out that Eve is not her real mother, she feels stunned and betrayed. Eve wails in her own defense, “You were only three. You looked just like Caddy [Eve’s oldest daughter]. You called me Mummy. You were so happy.” The brilliance here is in the innocent words, You called me Mummy. Eve and Linda, Saffy’s birth mother, were identical twins. At this point in the book, however, the reader doesn’t know that yet. The whole sequence of sentences is designed to suggest that the three-year-old whose mother has just been killed in a car accident doesn’t know any better, and is young and innocent enough to quickly accept the loving care of a new mother. But if you read between the lines, the implication is that Saffy called Eve “Mummy” because she literally thought Eve was her mother — she thought Eve was her identical twin sister Linda. The toddler Saffy’s vanished mother seemed to have reappeared. Of course she was happy.

This, I can assure you, made me sob when I stumbled across its true depth for the first time — on my fifth or so reading of this book. But it doesn’t surprise me. This careful weaving of words and meaning so that it appears artless is one of the characteristics of McKay’s beautiful writing that I envy and admire.

And it is this complexity in McKay’s writing, and in Saffy’s Angel in particular, that makes it great. The reader can be so bound up in the present-day adventure — Sarah and Saffy and their daily ice creams and outings in Italy, Sarah’s outrageous subterfuge which successfully sneaks Saffy across a national boundary like a spy, Caddy’s impending driving test, Rose’s edible picture — that you nearly miss the heartbreaking underlying tragedy of Linda’s death and how deeply it shatters the entire family, who soldier on in their fierce determination to live life to the fullest, and most especially how Linda’s death shatters the children’s grandfather.

The theme of crashing into things moves through the text like a leitmotif: Sarah literally crashing into Saffy when she first meets her, running Saffy over on purpose with her wheelchair to get Saffy to notice her; Linda’s car crash death; and then Linda’s father’s car crash when, desperate to make his bereft granddaughter happy, he makes the two-day drive back to Italy to fetch that stone angel from Saffy’s lost garden, the beginning of his own ten-year silent journey into death.

Saffy, Linda’s daughter, returns from her life-changing voyage to her ancestral home in Italy at the exact same moment that Caddy and Indigo and Rose, Eve’s children, return from their life-changing voyage to their ancestral home in Wales. Both houses are literally locked and inaccessible when they reach them — those physical homes exist only in the past. And yet, the children’s shared grandfather’s final journey which brought Saffy’s stone angel from Italy to Wales itself, before the action of the book begins, connects everything the Cassons do in the present, and brings them all home together in the now — physically and spiritually.

It’s masterful.

As she returns to her real family, her now family, Saffy reflects:

“How strange it was, she thought, to have come so far, and found so little, and feel so contented. She did not understand it at all.”

 *    *    *

Saffy’s Angel has always resonated with me, but now it does for different reasons. In my own life of the past two years, I have been dealing with legacy and loss. It shows up in my own recent writing. I forgot, when I chose to write about this book but before I re-read it, that it is about all the same things The Pearl Thief is about: a beloved and lost grandparent whose presence is felt throughout the pages even after his death; the worthless physical legacy he leaves behind contrasted with his rich spiritual legacy; a growing friendship that utterly blows apart class and upbringing; learning to recognize differences in others’ abilities and to accept and make allowances for them (or not, as the case may be); and the question of belonging, in one’s family and one’s home place and one’s world.

Somehow, and I do not quite remember how, though Hilary McKay and I have never met, we have become friends and correspondents. Our daughters are the same age, and hers wolfs down my books as quickly as mine wolfs down hers. They are both at university now, which has given us over the years a shared grounding in the horrors of exams, applications, and the terrifying plunge of a sheltered young person into the world alone. In her most recent holiday greeting to me, Hilary McKay remembered Sara individually and sent her a hug. As a devoted reader you don’t get much luckier than getting sent hugs from your favorite author.

The other highlighted passage in my copy of Saffy’s Angel, also in opaque lavender ink, is on page 34. Indigo, who is afraid of everything, says, “In one of my books it says you should always do the things that frighten you the most, and if you do them enough, they stop being scary.” Although I am the one who highlighted it, I feel sure that my own Sara took it to heart when she first read it at the age of ten, and still uses it as inspiration to live by. So should we all.

Read more from The Horn Book by and about Elizabeth Wein, including her two BGHB Honor speeches, for Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire.

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is the author of Code Name Verity, a 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, and Rose Under Fire, a 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book. Her most recent novel is Stateless (Little, Brown, 2023), and she co-wrote the 2024 nonfiction book American Wings (Putnam).

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Jolie Solomon

Dear Elizabeth and Horn Book, Thank you so very much for this. An adult friend suggested the sublime Julia Sawalha recording of SA to me when we were both in our late 50s. I wish I’d had it when i was younger , or when my daughter was 10 or 12, but it has been a treasure to find something that so satisfies my inner child and adult at this age. As if I’d discovered a new “A Little Princess” or “Little Town on the Prairie.” The series, especially SF, has become a touchstone for me; something I listen to regularly, often to get to sleep, or at times when the illness that keeps me in bed 22/7 makes me unable to do anything BUT listen. You say this all so well. I’d just add one of my favorite lines to your list, with all its McKayvian layers: Bill Casson’s “it’s not really art now, is it?” I also agree with your daughter on the essential nature of the book “Permanent Rose,” which among other things contains the very few words, and incredibly light touch, with which McKay draws the unraveling of an adult relationship—alluding to clear but unspecific earlier events, and spelling out the exchanges between Bill and Rose that reveal to Samantha (and to us, however foreshadowed) his deepest flaws, and lead the delightful Samantha (would love more of her somewhere, somehow ) to abandon this much-deserving-of-abandonment man. . I only wish that the books could be issued with decent cover art! What awful choices, especially the wispy bond version. AND that these books could somehow get on the top 25 of books recommended by librarians and booksellers to children and adults. In addition to the Nutshell Library, this is now my go-to gift for so many people.

Posted : Jan 09, 2022 05:01

GraceAnne DeCandido

Well, Elizabeth, your review made me cry, today three years after it was written, as the Casson books generally make me cry. And laugh. And both at the same time. I have never met you or Hilary in our physical persons, but I am in touch with you on Facebook, and her on Twitter, and I am having a cup of very strong tea and thinking really hard about both of you. I feel as though I should type a series of little hearts now, but I will refrain.

Posted : Oct 10, 2020 05:46

Julie Sullivan

What a wonderful review! I'm going to read those books right now. I love "family" books.

Posted : May 23, 2017 11:54



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