In this novel, a 5-year-old girl (whose father is a minor Jane Austen character) makes unexpected discoveries while adventuring through Europe in search of Utopia.
Sofia-Elisabete remembers the unforgettable months of travel and discovery she enjoyed as a 5-year-old in 1815. Sofia-Elisabete is the child of Col. Fitzwilliam, whom readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will recall as the likable but poor cousin of Mr. Darcy. Sofia-Elisabete’s mother is a Portuguese bolero dancer, Marisa Soares Belles, who abandons her baby at a convent. She’s eventually reclaimed by her father and taken to Scarborough, England. Blessed with a rich imagination and vigorous self-confidence, the little girl thrives; her father sometimes suffers from war flashbacks and drug-induced lethargies but makes a good marriage and is a fond father. Doña Marisa and her escort, Señor Gonzalez, come to Scarborough “to find a special someone”—in fact, to retrieve Sofia-Elisabete. For some time, the girl believes they’re journeying to “la luna.” Sofia-Elisabete hopes to discover, like the Spaniard in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, a paradise where hunger and crime don’t exist. Having many adventures across the Continent and over the Alps, the travelers reach Genoa, where Marisa hopes to find a home. While joyful at her mother’s acknowledgement and reunion with her father, Sofia-Elisabete is left with a difficult choice. Kobayashi (Freedom & Mirth, 2017) captures the magical thinking of young children while anchoring the novel’s peregrinations through repetition of key phrases. Each chapter, for example, begins with the formula “My first [memory, foot-race, etc.], thinks I, was….” Sofia-Elisabete’s perfectly original narrative voice is a delight, as is the girl herself; she’s compassionate, imaginative, and always game to master new skills (drumming, rope-dancing, “jodeling,” dancing the bolero). The glimpses of 1815 Europe, such as Dutch cleanliness and Swiss goiters, are well-observed, yet Kobayashi preserves the childlike point of view. While often very funny, the novel has depth in its concern for humanity’s problems and children’s emotions.
A sparkling, robust young hero with a distinctive voice—a real winner.