The Casson family copes with everyday life, their friends, and each other. Each of them has challenges to face,and each of the books focuses on life from the point of view of one of the family members, with the exception of Caddy Ever After which has each of them in turn telling their story via a diary narrative.
There are five books in the series so far. Saffy’s Angel (SA) introduces the family and explains that Saffy was adopted when her mother died. Indigo’s Star (IS) is set a couple of years later and takes place as Indigo returns to school after a serious illness. Permanent Rose (PR) introduces David who’s determined to befriend Indigo. The penultimate book, Caddy Ever After (CAE,) in which the Cassons describe various small interrelated challenges each must overcome. And the recently published Rose Forever.
With the slight caveat that broken families are normal, if never really condoned, I recommend this series. Why? Because the characters are fresh, funny and realistic. And because their relationships are likewise believable and grounded in reality if often very slightly larger than life. All we know of the Cassons is that they live a train ride away from London and close enough to sheep-farming countryside that Saffy’s boyfriend can leave her and Rose stranded on a hillside when his car breaks down. Why does this matter? Because the majority of youth stories are city-based and city children and city families are somewhat sharper and less tolerant than their more rural counterparts. The Cassons are hardly yokels but neither are they entirely urban. Their edges seem softened in direct contrast, for example, to their father’s more metropolitan outlook.
Which brings us to the Casson family parents. Bill married Eve some 20 years before but some time after Rose’s birth took himself off to London to his fashionable studio and has effectively remained there ever since, coming home for increasingly irregular weekend stays. It takes the family a while to accept that this is what has happened, and it’s true to say that Bill still loves his children and his wife. But definitely at a distance. He’s generous and has the charisma of a filmstar. The taxi driver who takes him to the station thinks he’s a great family man, but Bill heaves a sigh of relief once he’s back on the train to London.
Eve, on the other hand, while she also hides from her family in the garden shed where she does most of her painting, is most definitely at home with the children. Scatty and increasingly reliant on her children’s ability to make up for her inadequacies, she’s a lovable figure who never lets money matters worry her; she simply dives back into the shed and produces a glowing portrait of a family pet to make ends meet.
Against this backdrop, the Casson children are funny, intelligent, fiercely caring and full of initiative. Their friends fit in perfectly, too, once they’ve overcome their initial surprise at how the family functions. In IS, Tom discovers that being a member of the (extended) Casson family means joining in the search of the kitchen cupboards in the hope of finding food, taking care of Rose, helping with homework, learning to fold Sarah’s wheelchair and believing that Bill will come home in the event of an emergency. It’s hard to put your finger on just what makes the youngsters in these stories so normal and yet so endearing.
One other note which stands out in all Hilary McKay’s books is a very deft touch when describing schools, pupils and teachers. It’s far too common in youth lit to find cartoon-level teachers and pupils, especially teachers. The headmaster of the Secondary School is an understanding, if exasperated, adult. And Rose’s primary school teacher is adept at channelling the twitchiness of her pupils into a carefully-controlled session of Hot Gossip. The pupils are picked-out even better: Rose’s Ghost Club in CAE is characteristic, down to Rose’s shame at being so scared as to wet herself (and Eve & Saffy’s reactions). Look out for Kiran’s tall stories, and the younger children’s willingness to immerse themselves in her imagined world. The bullies at Tom’s school are not demons; they’re real lads drawn into a gang by a kind of unspoken crowd psychology, which can just as easily draw them out again.
Once or twice there’s a faintly spiritual vibe, such as when Saffy, talking again to Sarah after the latter’s recovery, ponders on whether humanity is all there is to things. Sarah’s gentle response: “Drink your choc, it’s getting skin on top.”
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also editor of the Good-to-Read website.