Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising 2015 Readathon)

Yacht sails out of Cornish harbour White sails depart a Cornish harbour, April 2006. Not actually the Withers' yacht, Lady Mary.

The Dark is Rising SequenceThe Drew family are delighted to spend the summer in Trewissick with Great-uncle Merry.

When the three children discover a crumbling manuscript in the attic, they think they’ve found an adventure to occupy their time.

But the ancient map holds the secret to a long-lost treasure that could tip the balance in the age-old battle with the Dark. Uncertain who to trust, the children find themselves in a race to the finish against forces more menacing than they had ever imagined.

I’m fairly certain that my first encounter with The Dark is Rising Sequence was The Grey King. In retrospect, that’s a pretty hard place to start this classic series – being both the second-to-last book and dealing with some pretty mature themes (responsibility, isolation, abandonment, betrayal). It didn’t put me off. I came to Over Sea, Under Stone entirely out of sequence – the 4th book I eventually read. I had already met the Drews, knew far too much about Merriman Lyon and had a healthy fear of the Dark. As a result, I don’t recall that the novel made much impact. Revisiting it all these years later, I’m overwhelmed by just how good it is.

Susan Cooper is a dab hand at simple, descriptive prose and has a knack for dialogue on par with Alan Garner (another childhood favourite). She brings her characters to vibrant life through conversation, Simon’s firstborn arrogance apparent from his first lines, riding roughshod over dreamier Jane’s assertion that she can smell the sea. As the story develops, Cooper captures the natural rhythms and asides of their speech, their affection for one another clear even as they bicker and tease.

I delighted in the occasional insertion of adult exchanges – Gumerry’s concerned that he is out of his depth over dinner (“I’m engaged in a long and heated debate with your mother over the relative merits of Caravaggio and Salvator Rosa”) flies straight over poor Barney’s head (and, presumably, most if not all child readers), as does much of the academic snobbery of the epilogue. But most of the novel is at the children’s level, and our understanding of the situation rests entirely on their experiences. Excepting Gumerry’s eventual history of the Dark, there’s very little in the way of Basil Exposition at any point – we’re never even told the children’s ages, or what they look like except as asides (Barney, as it turns out, is very fair and prone to sunburn).

As a child, reading at face value, it was easy to adopt the children’s attitudes towards the people they encountered. Rereading as a much more cynical adult, I enjoyed the way in which the narrative plays with its audience: we’re encouraged to think that Jane’s instinctive dislike of glamorous Polly Withers might be rooted in envy; and later Cooper indulges in authorial cat and mouse with regards to Mrs Palk’s true allegiances.

Even as an adult, I ended up finding this hard to put down. I couldn’t remember the twists and turns, and Cooper does a marvellous job of increasing the tension as the stakes grow higher and danger gets closer. It’s a brilliant story, and if the Dark feel rather lightly-drawn they are no less menacing for our lack of insight into their motivations. I can’t wait to plunge on further into the series, knowing that my favourites all lie ahead.