A delicate, spot-on evocation of childhood amid turmoil and tragedy, Troyan’s fine debut features a spunky ten-year-old forced to grow up before her time.
Gabriel is no more wicked or curious than any other girl her age, but circumstances do conspire to make her somewhat fierce. On her family’s usual summer holiday in the French countryside, the first hint of impending disaster comes when she learns that the house’s caretaker has died since the previous visit. Making themselves comfortable anyway, Gabriel, her nearly deaf younger sister Alex, their beautiful mother, their grandmother and her sister from South Africa, and their moody nanny all await the arrival of their American father. When he does arrive it’s just for a short visit, long enough to drop a bombshell: he’s fallen for another woman. This news sends Gabriel’s already flighty mother into a state somewhere between a funk and a frenzy, in which she has little time for either of her children. Granny fills in as best she can, which is fine with Gabriel, who adores her. But when Granny falls and sprains an ankle, the doctor next door (actually a psychiatrist but willing to make a house call when he finds Gabriel’s mother fetchingly at his door) enters their lives and takes her away from her kids even more. The nanny, meanwhile, has a thing going with the Spanish chauffeur, and when it doesn’t go smoothly she hits the gin hard. All of this Gabriel and little Alex might have been able to bear, given time and affection, but when Granny suddenly dies late one afternoon, after climbing with Gabriel to their favorite spot on the hill above the house, there’s no one to take her place, and, ready or not, the girls are left to find their own way to a better place.
The charm and innocence of the storytelling from Gabriel’s point of view make a substantial contribution to a moving, beautifully crafted novel.