Published by Macmillan Children’s Books.
Review by Elizabeth Gibson.
One of my favourite series is Hilary McKay’s Casson books; I love the cosiness and chaos of everyday family life that they evoke. Since finishing the series I’ve been looking for a fictional family to fill the void the Cassons left, and now I think I’ve found them. Sita Brahmachari’s Levensons are lovable and realistic. Their third book, Tender Earth, and its narrator, Laila, offer a world to escape into that is both flawed and, at times, incredibly beautiful.
Laila is the youngest child and has always been babied. When her two elder siblings leave home at the same time, she has to learn very quickly to stand on her own two feet. Once settled into secondary school, Laila begins to search for some bigger project to be part of – she considers trying dance but then, inspired by the memory of her activist Nana Josie, she decides to give campaigning a go.
Considering its subject matter, it is inevitable that Tender Earth will be a somewhat political novel. Not every reader will agree on every stance taken by the characters on big issues. However, Laila does acknowledge that sometimes knowing what is the right thing to do is very difficult, and she highlights the need to research situations before getting involved. The general ideas about standing up for your beliefs and looking out for your friends are fairly universal and much needed at the moment.
Laila’s voice is vivid and fresh. At times she can be painfully naive, at others wise in a way the adults around her don’t understand. She has her own quirks and sense of humour, which make for a convincing twelve-year-old. Her struggles around balancing old and new friendships will be familiar to many readers and the whole situation is well-handled, with a welcome lack of melodrama. The levels of maturity and sensitivity shown by the kids may seem slightly unrealistic, but I do hope we really are starting to move in that direction.
My only major issue with Tender Earth is the way Stella’s plot arc is handled. It feels very strange and I get the impression that maybe some of the original storyline was cut from the novel, as the fragments about her don’t make a lot of sense. Stella is an interesting character but she needs more page-time for us to truly understand her. A lesser complaint is that I had trouble working out some of the family relationships, which I’m guessing are explained earlier on in the series. There are also a few unlikely coincidences towards the end, but I was able to accept them as being part of the light magical touch that seems to hover over the Levensons.
Overall, Tender Earth is a gripping novel, which introduced me to a family and world that I am keen to revisit. I certainly intend to read the previous books, yet I hope there will also be a sequel or two, so that we can see Laila and her friends’ journey continue.