The Stone Book Quartet are four separate but linked short stories, written by Alan Garner. The stories are a fictionalised account of four generations of the author’s family, including Garner himself. They are set in North East Cheshire, particularly the area round Alderley Edge, where Garner and his family originate from.
Each of the stories is told from the viewpoint of a child character in the story and features a key moment in their lives. These are often set against wider changes in society: two of the stories are set during the world wars.
Although the stories are based on single episodes in the characters lives, there are two main themes that run through the collection: continuity and change.
The changes are fairly fundamental one’s. They include the rise of industrialisation and the end of cottage industries, the encroachment of new building on the rural landscape, the death of old crafts and the need for new ones. And all these changes are overshadowed by the effect of war. The effects of the Boer War and both world wars can be felt on individual characters and society as a whole.
Continuity is largely provided by the rural setting and the generations of Garner’s characters who are rooted in that setting. Some of the same characters appear across more than one story, sometimes at the centre of the story, sometimes at the edges. As well as the overall landscape and characters providing some continuity, there are also buildings and specific objects that link the generations, often in a startling way.
So, despite all the change and upheaval, there’s a sense that change only happens slowly. It’s almost as f there is something timeless that the changes can’t touch.
As in many of Garner’s stories, there is almost mystical and timeless element about them: time and the countryside are characters as much as the people. This feeling is added to by Garner’s prose, which is spare and precise: there’s not a word wasted. Garner uses the local Cheshire dialect widely in these stories, adding to the vivid sense of the setting. Using dialect in this way works well for this type of story, and doesn’t make them difficult to understand. I’ve read plenty of stories where the use of dialect seems wooden, but Garner judges it perfectly.
Each of the stories is written from the viewpoint of the main child character. This limits the reader’s knowledge of events to what the character sees and what they understand of events. This means the reader has some work to do piecing together events and working out their wider meaning. I enjoy books like this because they make me think: meaning isn’t handed to you on a plate. It also mirrors well how children see the world. I bet we can all remember overhearing grown-up conversations when we were younger and only partly understanding their meaning.
This isn’t just a children’s book though. It’s one of those rare books that adults and children alike can read and enjoy, each understanding it on a different level.
I love this book. For me it’s an excellent example of an imaginative way to write family history. Although the basic facts are there, it enhances them and makes the characters come alive in a way that old documents and photographs can’t.
If you’ve read The Stone Book Quartet, let me know what you think. If you haven’t read, I hope this inspires you to give it a go.