The Guardian – Critic’s choice
The novel opens as Saskia travels to the north-east of Scotland to stay with her Aunt Alessandra, after an absence of over a decade. The train’s coastal route enables Saskia to revel in the views of the sea, about which she feels an almost primal sensation. Her aunt’s house is literally built into the cliff-face, and although there is a definite awkwardness between two when Saskia first arrives, Saskia senses a genuine affection to which she responds, thrilled to be living by and observing the sea.
She determines to make the most of her time there, a few precious weeks between leaving school and beginning work in her father’s business, but as each day passes, she becomes increasingly anxious to place and interpret disparate memories she realises relate to the reason behind the abrupt cessation of a previously close relationship with Alessandra. She gradually comes to understand that the story her endlessly bickering parents have told her is one that suits their purpose – which gives no space to Allessandra’s story, the consequences of which have shaped her solitary life.
As with all Breslin’s writing for an older readership, there is an underlying force, in this case the rich life-cycles supported by the sea that dominates the lives of those who live by its shores. Lyrical reminders of the movements of vast shoals of fish and of the journeys of carpets of plankton are interpolated within the main narrative and, increasingly, throw the quiet, comparatively tiny drama of the story Saskia uncovers into painful relief. The scales fall from Saskia’s eyes, liberating her. This quiet novel packs a terrific emotional punch whilst highlighting the contemporary concerns of fishing communities under threat of economic extinction.
Each chapter of Theresa Breslin’s latest novel, Saskia’s Journey (Doubleday £10.99) opens with a brief notice of the signal given by a range of lighthouses. Their names – Lundy, Dungeness Southwold, Butt of Lewis – resonate with the history of the seas surrounding the British Isles and the families whose lives depended on those flashing light sequences The novel is interspersed with lyrical descriptions of the life cycles of the fish for whom crews risked their lives.
Against that backdrop. Breslin gradually, and with great poise, reveals the story of a family’s tragic dissolution. Saskia, its only beacon for the future, struggles to unpick the mess of half-truths with which her parents have stemmed her curiosity throughout her childhood. Dark references to the mental health of her aunt Alessandra. with whom she is spending the summer in a cliffside house in northeast Scotland, don’t ring entirely true for the girl who finds her aunt anxious, but acute. Gradually, Saskia uncovers the chilling genesis of the family rift. Alessandra’s story – of a generation for whom a dominant father could wreck female aspirations – is echoed contemporaneously in Saskia’s relationship with her own selfish and demanding father. Romantic notions of life on the high seas, and of loved ones returning after months chasing schools of whales, is shattered first by the realities and consequences of lost lives and loves, and subsequently by the death of hope. Stooped by the weight of her memories, Alessandra has become isolated.
A combination of Saskia’s zest for life and the freedom she is surprised to discover during her brief holiday liberates both women. Breslin’s delicately balanced narrative provides a haunting tribute to the beneficence and terrors of the seas, and of those communities currently under threat through what the author terms “insensitive legislation”. As with all her teenage novels, Breslin has a powerful point to make and, without telling readers what to think, leaves them in no doubt as to where she stands.
By Amy Wilson Age 14
How easy was it to get stuck into this book?
It was a really great book and it was easy to get stuck in, once I started reading it, I could hardly put it down.
Who are the main characters?
Saskia, her Aunt Alessandra, her parents, Neil Buchan the taxi driver and Ben, the marine biologist.
What’s the storyline?
Saskia’s dad convinces her to go and stay with her Aunt Alessandra in Scotland for a few weeks during her gap year. When she arrives she realises that she has stayed with her Aunt before, but she cannot remember it. When Saskia desperately tries to remember why she has blocked the previous visits to her Aunt out of her head, startling revelations about her family make her see her own life a bit differently. She learns about her family heritage, takes control of her life and meets Ben…
How’s it written?
It was written in the third person and is a great book for teenagers – I would definitely recommend it.
Other books by the same author that Amy Wilson knows about?
REMEMBRANCE and the DREAM MASTER books for young people.
The overall verdict
***** (5 stars)
From Books for Keeps
This is a story of Theresa Breslin’s love affair with the sea wrapped around the story of Saskia’s voyage of discovery into her past and thereby her future. Saskia is in transition; it is her gap year and going to stay with her great-aunt in a small fishing community in north-east Scotland seems like a good idea. Mystery surrounds Aunt Alessandra and her house with the staring windows, perched on the edge of a rocky escarpment. As the days go on Saskia comes to understand things hidden in her own head, in the minds of her father and her aunt and in the strange old house.
Saskia is escaping from disagreements between her parents and her father’s persuasive insistence that she study economics instead of marine biology. As she grows closer to her aunt and talks to the handsome Ben who is researching sea life in the locality, Saskia comprehends her maritime ancestry and the lure which the water has for her. The sea permeates the story; it is there as a backdrop, in its effect on characters and in an underlying plea for conservation of the fishing grounds. The interpolation of the occasional paragraphs describing the life cycle of fish and the chapter headings, each relating to one of 33 lighthouses around the coast of Britain, underlines themes of maturing and journey in a sensitive finely structured novel which unfolds as delicately as a ‘creamy purl of foam at the water’s edge.’
From The Herald
By Edward Hardy
The moral issue of Theresa Breslin’s SASKIA’S JOURNEY sits on the main edge of the plot. The issue in question is man’s relationship with the sea, and our exploitation of fishing stocks.
Saskia Granton travels from London to Aberdeen, where she intends to spend a simple holiday with her reclusive great-aunt, Alessandra, a woman haunted by her unresolved past. But Saskia has a more profound journey to make. The holiday uncovers disturbing childhood memories, of holidays past and questions unanswered. Why does Saskia’s father want her to return to Scotland? What is the truth behind Alessandra’s past? Why has she not visited her great aunt since early childhood? The answers are compelling and shocking, wrapped in a poetic narrative beautifully capturing the scent of the sea and of sea-faring life. Breslin skilfully unravels a tragic family history that has blighted the lives of its main characters. In unveiling the truth, Saskia makes her most important voyage, away from the blinkered comfort of childhood towards the harsh enlightenment and responsibilities of the adult.
What, you may ask, has this to do with the issue of herring stocks? Well, not a lot, especially as the marine environment themes are the obsession of the rather too worthy marine scientist and love interest, Ben. Frankly I didn’t care. The profounder human issues, of family secrets and their ensuing legacy, of personal responsibility and of a child’s shifting relationships with its parents are perfectly interwoven and dramatically explored. Saskia’s final discoveries of the deeply sad events and decisions that have crippled her family over generations had me gripped.
From The Bookselller
Breslin’s mesmerising descriptions of the sea and the people who depend on it captures all of the atmospheric beauty of north-east Scotland.
RECOMMENDED READ by Tracey, Children’s Manager, Ottakar’s Bookshop, Aberdeen
Buchan, Aberdeen and Peterhead all feature in this lyrical book.
Saskia is invited to stay with her great-aunt in the mysterious Cliff House… As the secrets of house and family unfold, so Saskia gets involved in local life.
A vivid eulogy of the threatened fishing way of life in the North-East.
From the Arts Show: Radio Scotland
This is an amazing book. It covers so many areas and subjects. The ongoing crisis in the fishing industry, marine biology, conservation, The history of the North East and the Doric language whilst also managing to focus on mental health issues and bereavement, growing up, abuse and family secrets.
… the sea is the driving force in the book – it’s omnipresent – an affect achieved by letting it have its own voice.
…a book about secrets and half truths…no-one is quite what they seem.
From School Librarian, Spring 2004
By Pat Williams
Saskia has a great love of the sea and is pleased to visit her great aunt Alessandra who lives in a large three-storey house, halfway down the cliff and facing the sea. She is especially pleased to be leaving her warring parents. Saskia has not been to see her great aunt for many years and is puzzled when her aunt says that she used to visit as a child with her parents. She asks her mother why they no longer visit her great aunt and is told that on the last visit when she was very young she made her mother promise that she would never take her there again.
Eventually memories of childhood summers are revived and the secrets of the past begin to unfold. Saskia grows close to her great aunt and learns about her sad past, the personal tragedy that left her so isolated and of the lives and loves that have been lost to the sea. Saskia also finds herself on a journey of self-discovery as she begins to love and understand the fishing community whose way of life and strange language is under threat. A very thought-provoking read, and thoroughly recommended for the library.
From Newmarket Journal, Suffolk
By Philip Daws
An outstanding children’s book and a worthy follow-up to the fantastic Remembrance. Saskia is a teenager who thinks a lot about everything – especially the environment and her troubled family. She also loves the sea and finds herself completely absorbed in its atmosphere and power when she goes to visit her great aunt in a remote Scottish fishing village. Saskia finds herself swept along an amazing tide of self-discovery in this brilliant story.