A review by nicktomjoe
Astercote by Penelope Lively


A hugely inventive story, in which Peter and Mair, two incomer children to a closed North Oxfordshire village of Charlton Underwood - Charlbury, perhaps is the basis - blunder into a secret held by the old families of the village since the fourteenth century: a chalice from the lost village of Astercote, now buried in the local woods. The secret preservation of this medieval artefact maintains the wellbeing of modern Charlton, itself straining with tensions from a new estate tacked-on to the old village. The chalice’s disappearance highlights the tensions between the old village and the newer estate, between the traditional views of the older generation and a newer one who are torn between a no-nonsense approach and an intrusive attitude that threatens the peace of the community.
The lines of tension and power are complex, and Lively does well to negotiate them, slowly and subtly. Peter and Mair set out, with the help of Evadne the district nurse and the guardian of the chalice, Goacher, to resolve the mystery and bring a much-needed peace to the village. The adventure strand is well worked through - the demonising of the lads on bikes feels a bit outdated but at least believable - and there are odd threads of the supernatural worked into the narrative, enough to bring a slight chill to the reader! The sociology of new and old families in the village is subtly worked through, with characters bringing their own pasts in briefly, tantalisingly, to enrich the story; the landscape is vivid, so much so that I diverted into Google maps to find lost pathways round Wychwood in N Oxon while I read.
This is a story to be savoured, from Goacher’s hawking skills to the ghostly bells of the lost village that Mair can hear, the tangible tension of the secret wood of Astercote, the menace and excitement of the final chase... Lively has given us a classic here, although I am reminded of Peter Hunt’s warning that children’s literature has (or can have) a short life span.