Review: 'The Song of Seven' by Tonke Dragt, trans. Laura Watkinson
We all have those books that are intrinsically linked to our ideas and memories of childhood and family. They are the books passed down by parents, the books that are read to you when you’re young, the books that have become inside jokes. Most of those books for me are either Dutch or German and have literally been passed down to me by my father and mother. One of these is De Zevensprong, a delightful adventure about storytelling, reading, hidden treasures and friendship. So when adult me saw an English translation of that childhood favourite, I knew I had to get my hands on it and see if that innocent magic would retain its power not only in another language but also on another, older, me. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 06/02/2018
Publisher: Pushkin Press
An exciting new stand-alone adventure by the internationally bestselling author of The Letter for the King.
Seven paths, seven unlikely friends, and one extraordinary adventure featuring magicians, secret passages, conspiracies, hidden treasures, a black cat with green eyes and a sealed parchment which predicts the future.At the end of every schoolday, new teacher Mr Van der Steg entertains his pupils with tall tales of incredible events, which he claims really happened to him - involving hungry lions and haunted castles, shipwrecks and desert islands. One day, when he can't think of anything suitably exciting to tell them, he invents a story about a very important letter which he's expecting that evening, with news of a perilous mission. Evening arrives and so, to his surprise, does an enigmatic letter...
And so Mr Van der Steg is drawn into a real-life adventure, featuring a grumpy coachman, a sinister uncle, eccentric ancestors, a hidden treasure, an ancient prophecy and Geert-Jan, a young boy who is being kept prisoner in the mysterious House of Stairs.
So, De Zevensprong, or The Song of Seven, was a major part of my childhood. Some of my favourite memories are of my father reading the book to me when I was young, or Skyping home while at University only to realize my family is binge-watching a Dutch TV adaptation of the book. When a novel is that close to your heart it becomes close to impossible to be objective about it. The same counts for the Harry Potter books, for example. I will defend those books to the death, simply because they have become a part of me and my history. The Song of Seven is special, in a way, because it deals in and of itself with story telling as well. Mr. Van der Steg, a relatively new teacher, entertains his students by telling them wild tales of distant and imagined lands. The children adore the adventure, while he is able to keep them quiet and engaged. All is well, until a new story begins and it comes to life. Stories are no longer a distant thing, suddenly there is danger around the corner and people aren’t who they say they are. What always added to this novel’s magic for me was that it felt so true to the gentle magic of the Eastern provinces of the Netherlands, where folk tales and legends lurk behind every corner and all names and rhymes have meaning and power.
The Song of Seven is a children’s book, but one of those that has something to offer to readers from all ages. At the centre of the novel is teacher Frans Van der Steg, who is still relatively new to his surroundings and his students. Van der Steg is the guiding thread through the novel, desperately wanting to know just what is going on, while trying to live up to the brave heroes of his own tales. One day, he tells his students he is waiting for a terribly important letter since he can’t think of any stories to tell. Lo and behold, a letter does arrive for him, setting him and his school children on a path of adventure and mystery. The reader is as fresh and unaware as Van der Steg, which means that each of his discoveries and confusions are shared by the reader. Although the novel starts very calmly, the plot really picks up speed about a third into the book and it becomes almost impossible to put down. Tonke Dragt put everything you might want from an adventure story into this book, and yet it never feels to full or unfocused. The mysterious prophecy and confusing Sevenways don’t distract from the importance of friendship and love for adventure that the novel tries to instill.
Tonke Dragt is, rightfully, celebrated in the Netherlands. Her fiction has enriched countless of childhoods with her stories of adventure. Her writing style is straightforward and spare on big words, perfect for the younger readers, and yet, without any fancy frills, Dragt is immensely good at creating atmosphere. Whether it’s the House of Stairs or a rambunctious school class, she describes everything in such a way that you don’t even have to close your eyes to see it. She also doesn’t underestimate her readers, and there are many points in the book that remain mysterious. Dragt retains that sense of magic and legend by not spelling everything out perfectly, nor by giving a reason for everything. Some things just are, and The Song of Seven almost feels like a snapshot, capturing the potential for many more stories to come. De Sevensprong is beautifully translated by Laura Watkinson, who captures the easy flow with which Dragt writes her books, as well as the charming quirks of her characters. I was very happy to see that all the Dutch names were retained, rather than changed, even if they might take some getting used to for English readers. The Song of Seven is the perfect book for adventurous young readers and their parents.
I give this novel…
I adored The Song of Seven. It is that simple. In a sense, Tonke Dragt’s books are part of the reason why I have always held the secret ambition to become a writer. Her novels are heartwarming and inspiring, and I’m incredibly happy that her stories will now be available to even more readers.