Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Green Hill Far Away by Joan Vardy - Reviewed by Louise Rule

A Green Hill Far Away by Joan Vardy
Reviewed by Louise Rule

A Green Hill Far Away is a truly unexpected read. It is a true story of World War II as experienced by an almost-blind child, a girl whose interpretation of what she sees and hears is both heart-breaking and endearing. It is written as a list of some 129 separate memories, almost epistles, if you will. The language is enchanting, child-like and yet perceptive. Joan Vardy weaves her memories in and out of her darkness, her shadows, her streams of imagined shapes. She speaks of being sightless, '...except for coloured lights; flashing; moments of lucidity realised through lights, colour...' One is left to imagine how it must feel, being almost sightless.

Each memory is a short moment, a snapshot, defined by a single thing, and that single thing becomes the most important event at that moment. One of the memories that holds a place in my mind is when Joan is a baby, and she talks of her 'memories' of being put into a baby's gasmask. She speaks of finding herself, ' darkness with just one tiny square of light to see through.' She also tells of her terror of being inside, 'a black dome'. The most profound description, which gives you some idea of the remoteness of being blind, is when Joan is removed from the gasmask. She tells us of her mother holding her close, and, 'All over my body I felt a tingling of pins and needles. Now I knew the shape of myself. Now I knew me.' Obviously Joan had been hyperventilating to get pins and needles in her extremities, but this revelation moved me so much. We take for granted that even a blind child, adult even, would know the shape of themselves, and it has taken a child's memory to point out that this is not necessarily so.

Another memory for Joan was at "The Auction". This is described in incredibly evocative language, conjuring up all kinds of images in my mind. That's it isn't it? The conjuring up of images, all a blind person would have. We are treated to the description of some children's plates that her mother bought for her, 'thre'p'ny bit shapes with straight edges and corners.' For those readers who don't remember the threepenny piece of long ago, they were twelve sided brass coins. I remember these coins very well, and they were greatly tactile because of their shape and texture.

The Threepenny coin was deeply engraved and extremely tactile
(image from Wikipedia)

The memories are full of the most detailed of images, which are astounding in their perceptiveness. I would like to include here a short extract from a memory entitled "The Chip Shop":

'I enjoyed waiting in the chip shop. there were fascinating sounds, telling the story, one on from another. The clanking of the fire door opening, the roar of the fire being fed with coal, the crunch crunch of the chip chopper chopping whole potatoes into chips, the shwoosh of the chips lowering into the hot fat, and the newspaper being cut up into squares with a sharp knife.

'These sounds were all above my head, but if I pressed an ear to the counter, it sounded as though I was in there, deep down, frying with the chips, with the hot fat bubbling all about me far above my head.'

I feel that a discussion about these images is important. For example, just imagine in your mind's eye listening to something that you have never seen; but only experienced with your ears. How would you describe it? How would you describe the noises in a fish and chip shop? I am not sure about chip shops back in the day; the modern chip shops don't have fire doors, but are either gas or electric. The imagery nevertheless is still powerful. For example, 'the roar of the fire being fed coal' - close your eyes if you will, and try to imagine that sound. You can also feel the heat can't you? I like the rhythmic alliteration of: 'the crunch crunch of the chip chopper chopping whole potatoes into chips'. If you imagine the 'chip chopper', the words go in time with the chopping motion that Joan would be listening to. Then there is the onomatopoeic sound of the chips being lowered into the hot fat, and the paper being cut into squares, 'shwoosh' - similar sounds aren't they? There is the softer 'shwoosh' of the knife going through paper, and then the louder 'shwoosh' sound of the chips being lowered into the hot fat, the noise of the hot fat sizzling around the raw chips, all evocative sounds, bringing back her childhood memories.

Joan Vardy could see very little, but her world was experienced through her ears, her touch, and her sense of smell. Her keen awareness of the world about her and all her experiences as that young girl are here in her beautifully written book A Green Hill Far Away, for everyone to read and enjoy. It is truly a remarkable journey, a journey that maybe some of us have yet to make.

Joan Vardy's book can be bought here.

Joan is offering a free copy of her book - so if you would like to be in with a chance of winning a copy, just comment here, or on our Facebook Page to go into the draw.

Louise is the author of Future Confronted.
Louise's blog is here.
Louise's Facebook page is here.


  1. Louise's fine and perceptive review draws me to this book,which sounds so much like the letters I received from my partially blind WWII Pen Pal. I would like to win this.

  2. We take things so for granted having sight is one of them, how hard and scary it must have been not only to go through a war, but to be blind as well, it sounds like this will be a powerful thought provoking book, i would love to win this

    thanks for the opportunity to win this


  3. Sounds as if this would be a beautiful but harrowing read. Hoping to win a copy