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From Seven to the Sea

Jayne Joso
Publication Date: 
Monday, February 18, 2019
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‘With this tender story of trauma in a child's life, brimming with sympathy and insight, Jayne Joso hymns the compassion of strangers and the consolations of the sea.’ – Horatio Clare

‘A beautifully written and masterfully calibrated portrayal of the search for sanctuary and enchantment within a childhood under siege.’ – Chloe Aridjis

From Seven to the Sea explores the emotions of childhood and an almost limitless capacity for imagination, invention, and fearlessness as it charts the survival of seven-year-old Esther as she negotiates her mother and stepfather’s dysfunction, and a school environment that exposes her to further prejudice and injustice.

It is a window onto the world of a child who rejects convention and expectation, and who embarks on an expedition into liberty and freethinking; and who, each day, in place of school, sets out to sea.




Review by Harry Readhead, The Cardiff Review

Saturday, February 1, 2020

On the day the tiny heroine of Jayne Joso’s book turns seven, her mother Maud remarries. Esther never knew her own father, and she’s excited at the prospect of having one:

"This was her chance then, the chance to have one. Brilliant! And there was every possibility that it was going to be even more brilliant since the whole thing was all so new! Her thoughts ran on, each colliding with the one ahead, forcing out the ever more pleasing “father, daughter” story."

Her enthusiasm gives the game away. Because of course it turns out that the father she so wants, and who she is promptly instructed to call “Dad”, is fond of rules for others and not much else. Right at the bottom of his long list of hates—which includes “the Irish, the Scots, and people from Liverpool; anyone Asian, Oriental or Black, and anyone from the Middle East”—is, of course, Esther, whose birthday is promptly forgotten, and who is soon relegated from bridesmaid to burden after being sick on her dress. She is entrusted to two of the guests and taken to the seaside, the place that will become her only refuge.

This is the curtain-raiser to From Seven to the Sea, which describes a child’s attempt, over the course of one summer, to navigate novelty against a backdrop of breathtaking adult dysfunction. Esther must endure a new father who shows himself more and more to be unworthy of the description, but she must also make new friends and attend a new school, now bearing a new surname which, somewhat predictably, presents problems more or less right away.

It’s at school that Esther encounters the fearsome Ms Butler, who is unreasonably annoyed that Esther fails to register her new name when it is called out. What follows is the first in a series of attempts on Ms Butler’s part to exclude Esther and sabotage her efforts to fit in and make friends. She plays to the worst instincts of a class of children for teasing and abuse, and this turns out to be her speciality. In one upsetting scene, Ms Butler, shuffling “on heavy hips,” has Esther submit herself to the open mockery of the class for the crime of failing to respond to her name in sufficiently fluent Welsh, which she does not speak. Like some Medieval wrongdoer consigned to the pillory, Esther is ordered to stand on her chair and endure the ridicule of her classmates.

"Esther couldn’t hold back anymore, and the tears that had risen from so deep inside fell with the full weight of her pain. She couldn’t speak. She still barely had the concept of another language, she had no energy to gather thoughts, or form words, or any words at all."

This is made more frustrating by the fact that Esther is bright and curious and initially finds Ms Butler’s authoritarian way rather comforting. “Ms Butler seemed to command respect and would undoubtedly take no prisoners should troublemakers be discovered,” thinks Esther; “Good.”

Circumstance conspires to test Esther’s sunshine spirit at every turn. Esther’s mother becomes little more than a maid to her insufferable new husband, “the man”, and an ineffective buffer against the bitterness he directs Esther’s way. At school, stuck with an unfortunate nickname, Esther’s talent is ignored, dismissed or made into a fault. And the friends she so desperately wants and strives to make do not materialise.

But Esther finds comfort in the sea. It seems to promise romance and adventure, and down by the harbour there’s a buzz and bustle which Esther likes. In the shape of kindly inveterate seaman Pete (who wears a “nice navy blue hat, like a real true fisherman”) she finds something of the father-figure she has been denied by her mother’s choice in husbands. “Down the harbour [Esther] felt her heart rate coming back into rhythm with the rest of her body, she felt more real, more ordinary, more alive.” It’s here, free from the caprice and intolerance of the adults in her life, to which Esther escapes when school finally becomes too much to bear.

Joso’s is, take it all in all, a charming story. It’s lacking somewhat in an engaging or driving plot, but is held together well enough by the well-wrought character of Esther and Joso’s remarkable talent for rendering her inner life believably. The degree to which you enjoy From Seven to the Sea will hinge on your interest in this, its central character, whose optimism and lack of guile remind the adults reading it of the wisdom of children. And it might also put you in mind of Freud, who once said that there is a distressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.

Review by George Foster, Buzz Magazine

Monday, April 29, 2019

From Seven To The Sea delivers a story about the struggles of starting a new family, as told from the perspective of seven-year-old Esther. This is really what sets the book apart. Despite the weight of circumstances like a neglectful stepfather and the loss of her relationship with her mother, Esther views things with a naive, youthful optimism. As you’d expect from the title, the sea also plays a powerful role in the book, guiding Esther throughout the hardships and shaping her by the end. Esther’s tale is told so well and with such a unique perspective that it almost disappoints by not having more story to tell.

Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

My overwhelming impression of Jayne Joso’s novel From Seven To The Sea is of glittering sunlight that blinks off every surface until you can only see your surroundings through the shards of your own eyelashes. Beautiful, but brimming with half-glimpses of potential treachery.

Esther is an exceptional child, gifted with a view of the world muddled through intoxicatingly with joy, music and hope. She has a talent for making allies of every person or dog she encounters.

Until, that is, she meets the man.

“The man, it would transpire, had a long list of ‘rules’, a long list of ‘dislikes’… things that caused him ‘displeasure’ and on top of this, a list of ‘hates.’ (…) But more than any of these, he hated on sight, and would come to detest, Esther, just turned seven.”

The man is, unfortunately, her new stepfather. As her seventh birthday falls into disarray and she’s swept to a new home, we’re buoyed by Esther’s resilience even as each act against her happiness, usually perpetrated by the man, wounds us.

As wrongfooted as she is to have been uprooted, Esther’s natural buoyancy leads her to the many havens in her neighbourhood, from a room full of African artefacts that become her pals, to a den she creates under trees in the garden, to the wondrous place where sea meets shore.

But with school soon to start again, Esther seems to have been frozen in time, a detail emphasised by the fact she appears to have stopped growing. It’s as though even her body is working to keep her safe by keeping her small and inconsequential.

Joso captures all the anxiety and dread of a first day at a new school in a single perfectly drawn paragraph. “Somehow in her mind she felt held back, as though by the wind, as though the elements intend she take a different route (…) Ahead, children poured in through the school gates, and down a slope towards the brown school building. She came up after them with the timidity of a ghost, and squeezed her hands tight together to check that she was real.”

Throughout it all, Esther’s vivid imagination and affability make her a delight to spend time with. Author Jayne Joso deposits us beneath her skin in a land of synaesthetic richness, where music swells with colours and flavours. “She could hear the instruments come into play as though she had bidden them to do so, and she chuckled, for actually they came all by themselves. (…) Streams of pink and lilac coiled like ribbons, yellow, then mandarin orange. She sensed the taste of sugared almonds. Then raspberries.”

While the grown ups she could have expected to depend on for safety (including her stepfather and teacher) become along the worst of her bullies, she finds solace in the company of strangers, including Pete, an old sailor living on a boat on the harbour who has a skill for perfectly peeling an orange.

Such a level of trust and intrigue is inevitably laced with peril, and Joso adeptly uses our own misgivings against us. As adults proffer warnings without explanation, threats hover on the edges of Esther’s adventures.

The cruelty that comes Esther’s way made me furious with the small-mindedness and ignorance of the grown ups in her life. At times Esther’s mistreatment makes the reading almost unbearable, but thanks to the lyricism of Joso’s writing and the indomitable character of Esther, this is far from misery fiction. A balance is finely wrought throughout to keep us fixed to the page, with Esther’s determination and ‘sunshine spirit’ evoking new pleasures even in the grimmest passages.

Esther is a dauntless, dazzling protagonist you can’t help but take to heart, trapped in circumstances that are far from extraordinary yet equipped with an innate passion for life that could teach us all a thing or two.

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