From Strength to Strength
I’ve just finished reading Pebble, the sixth book in Julia Jones' ‘Strong Winds’ series (Golden Duck), largely set around coast of East Anglia. Each instalment has powerfully tackled some important social issues which affect all our lives. The first volume is the nautically-based trilogy,The Salt-Stained Book, appeared in 2011. It was inspired by Julia Jones yacht, Peter Duck, one of a number belonging at one time or another to Arthur Ransome. The Ransome connection extends beyond this; her parents knew Ransome personally and bought the yacht after his death, allowing their small daughter to read many of the Swallows and Amazons stories in the quarter-berth onboard which Ransome had originally used to store his typewriter. She continued the trilogy with A Ravelled Flag (2011), and Ghosting Home (2012) having realised there was more to be said about the characters. The Lion of Sole Bay followed in 2013 and then the fifth title, Black Waters, appeared two years later. Pebble, Jones says, will be the penultimate title - so at least we have one more to look forward to!
While totally immersed in sailing, Jones’ novels are always centred around the family as well - often an extended, troubled collection but always a unit, whose strengths (and weaknesses) are revealed by the wider adventures they face. In Pebble, she highlights nine-year-old Liam – a single pebble on a shingle beach – and feeling increasingly isolated from family life. Liam's home life is complicated by his step-sister's friendship with the troubled son of a Russian billionaire, while his unknown mother has left him an inheritance which she never intended and which he cannot avoid. Liam struggles to protect his family against unseen dangers, but a half-term trip up the Suffolk coast in the Chinese junk Strong Winds (hence the title of the first book) detonates a series of events which bring glorious discoveries and permanent collateral damage.
Liam’s inheritance isn’t what we might imagine, and true to Jones’ constant concern with social issues, his feelings of isolation find him happiest when singing shanties for the residents at the local Care Home. Jones writes with great compassion when highlighting both the young and the old, and in her afterword she acknowledges the real-life situations which have been her inspiration. Her characters have always been a complex collection from every walk of life, and many far-flung places, whose backstories explain how they have become ‘other’. Jones has emphasized that it is precisely these different backgrounds which provide the strength of character and varied experience which are essential in rich and integrated communities, whatever their financial situation.
Each ‘Strong Winds’ novel can be read as a stand-alone story, and Jones thoughtfully prefaces Pebble with a brief resumé of the earlier volumes, and a short biography of those characters who recur or are referenced. It’s a great joy to meet Donny and his mother again – the main characters of the first book – and witness how they have developed after a traumatic beginning. By far the best way to read Pebble however is to preface it with the earlier book in order to realise how strong the characters have become through their experiences - and Jones shows us that we can too.