I came across this book when trawling for books about Mother’s Day, for a piece I was writing for parenting magazine Today’s Child. Josa Young, the author of two novels, Sail Upon the Land and One Apple Tasted, saw my online shout-out and kindly sent me a free review copy of Sail Upon the Land, because the book’s most pervasive theme is motherhood. Unfortunately, I was, as ever, right up against my deadline, so I was unable to read it in time for inclusion, and had to put it one side.
However, the luscious and intriguing cover of the book, in a zingy lemon-lime shade, shouted out to me from my to-read pile, with its promise of insights into characters leading busy social lives from the heady days of the mid 20th century and more. (The silhouette made me think of Twiggy, and the legs above of 1950s and 1960s cocktail party). I therefore promoted it to the top of my to-read pile and got stuck in. (Oh, the power of a good cover!)
A Four-Generation Saga
The blurb on the back also drew me in with an overture to the exploits of four women in successive generations: Sarah, Melissa, Damson and Mellita. Damson? Mellita?? Why the strange names? I have a notorious aversion to book characters with funny names, and I hate it when authors make the rookie error of having characters whose names are so similar that it confuses readers.
All was revealed when I took the book away on a weekend break and more or less ignored everything around me till I’d finished it – it was that compelling. I even came to love those eccentric names, and to realise that they were chosen not for some whim of the author, but for good reasons – though I’m not going to spoil the plot by telling you what those reasons were.
Effective Evocation of Many Eras
The story kicks off with a critical moment from Damson’s life in 1987, full of the sights and sounds and smells of India, and an impressionable teenager’s wistful romantic dreams inspired by 80s TV drama Jewel in the Crown. However, we are soon whisked back to her grandmother’s teenage years, just after the First World War. So begins an almost consistently chronological sequence of events following the female family line through Sarah, Melissa, Damson and Mellita, responding to crises that could only befall women (carefully sidestepping plot spoilers here!)
Josa Young meticulously evokes the spirit of the different ages in England across the years, chronicling the continuing social evolution via her close third-person depiction of each of the key characters. She garnishes the narrative with a sprinkle of brand-named products that for those of us of a certain age encapsulate a specific era. For decades, I’d forgotten all about Look Now magazine, a defining influence on some of my teenage years in the 1970s, and winning a place in my heart forever by publishing an angst-filled teenage poem that I’d written. Knowing that the author had previously worked as a features editor for national women’s magazines, I was not surprised at the dexterity and ease with which she was able to flourish exactly the right brands.
To Change or Not to Change?
With Sarah’s part of the story beginning only 10 years after universal suffrage for women, and the book closing in 2009, one might assume that the novel would travel a one-way trip to women’s emancipation, with life getting better for each successive generation as the horrors of World War fade away. But that would be too easy, and hats off to Josa Young for taking the more challenging stance that actually, la plus ça change… The traps may be different, but the net effect is the same.
She also takes a humane and compassionate approach to characters’ flaws, even for those who commit offences that some might deem unforgivable. There are no villains, only victims of their own circumstances. That stance makes for a more thoughtful, intelligent and insightful read, and discourages the reader from making dismissive value judgments rather than trying to understand people’s motivations.
To my mind, the noblest thing that fiction can do is to encourage readers to think more deeply about those around them, to better understand and relate to other people, and so to go on to lead more forgiving and compassionate lives. Even if unlikely to change the world in a revolutionary way for the better, the best novels do at least to change lives for the better in small ways. Isn’t that part of what makes Austen, Dickens and Hardy, and the like, so great and so timeless? It’s certainly what I aspire to do when I write fiction (though my stories are short, slight and generally humorous in nature) – and I felt that was what Sail Upon the Land did too.
Josa Young’s other novel, One Apple Tasted, has already earned itself a place on my to-read list.
It’s only just occurred to me that I should point out that Josa Young is no relation to me!