The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson is the first book I’ve read by this author, and although it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for, it won’t be my last.
As soon as I started to read Ibbotson’s writing, I could detect the magic that so many others have mentioned. She has a real knack for making her characters shine. The settings were magical too – wild schools, secret pools and alpine kingdoms. It has all the right ingredients, but the mix wasn’t quite right. I’ve shared my thoughts in this post, but first a summary:
The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson is an enchanting tale of friendship and determination during the Second World War, from the author of The Star of Kazan.
Tally Hamilton is furious to hear she is being sent from London to a horrid, stuffy boarding school in the countryside. And all because of the stupid war. But Delderton Hall is a far more interesting place than Tally ever imagined, and an exciting school trip to the beautiful and luscious kingdom of Bergania whisks Tally into an unexpected adventure . . . will she be able to save her new friend, Prince Karil, before it’s too late?
What elements worked well in The Dragonfly Pool?
The main characters
The characters in The Dragonfly Pool are all beautifully depicted with a good mix of traits. Tally, a determined kindly girl is the main player and I admired her mix of bravery and foolhardiness. The young prince, Karil, was my favourite though. He experiences the most tragedy in the book and Ibbotson conveys his changing emotions with real skill. This is a boy who has to adapt to terrible circumstances almost constantly throughout the story. His fortitude in the face of grief is moving and you want to fight for him.
The key themes – freedom, power & friendship
The concept of freedom lies at the heart The Dragonfly Pool. Tally and Karil embody the two opposites of freedom and responsibility. Tally has free rein to enjoy her life despite having little money; Karil has all the power and riches but he is trapped by status. Tally’s school, Delderton is progressive – allowing children to explore their interests and build friendships. Karil is taught alone in the palace.
It’s easy to see where Eva Ibbotson’s thoughts lie as she demolishes the royal dream over the course of the book. Karil’s existence is impoverished compared to Tally’s and ultimately, he is only redeemed when their friendship triumphs. I found it really refreshing to read a book where royalty and wealth isn’t sensationalised.
The sense of freedom is also echoed in Karil’s father’s refusal to submit to the Nazis and the backdrop of World War II is never far away.
The vivid settings
The settings in The Dragonfly Pool are drawn with intricacy and originality. I particularly liked the little details such as the descriptions of the Delderton valley.
Sheltered from the north winds, everything grew at Delderton: primroses and violets in the meadows; campions and bluebells in the woods and later in the year, foxgloves and willowherb. A pair of otters lived in the river, kingfishers skimmed the water and russet Devon cows, the colour as the soil, grazed the fields, and wandered like cows in Paradise.
It can’t be a coincidence that all the places that Ibbotson drawns with affection have a connection with nature as this was a great theme throughout her life (she married an ecologist).
Epilogues can be risky things but in this case it works really well. Without giving too much away, Eva Ibbotson tells us what happens to the characters six years on and this little addition fulfilled all my expectations.
What were the weaknesses in The Dragonfly Pool?
The plot lacked cohesion
I found the plot to be too fragmented. It was as if the author had taken a collection of ideas and places that she wanted to highlight and tried to weave them all into one book. On one level, this was interesting, but on another, it became confusing as the narrative lurched between characters, places and individual stories. At certain points, I lost the thread and it took an effort to keep the momentum.
The villains are definitely nasty but there were too many of them. These ranged from sinister/greedy family members to the Gestapo. It was hard to keep track of all the different antagonists and this diluted their impact. I would’ve preferred a more streamlined adversary.
My overall impression of The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson
Alhthough The Dragonfly Pool had moments of beauty and pathos, it lost some of its impact through the rambling plot. Saying that, some elements will remain with me – the train rides to Delderton, Karil’s loneliness and of course, the dragonfly pool itself.
I couldn’t help wondering about the amount of personal elements such as Delderton school (which was based on her own experiences of schooling as a child) that Eva Ibbotson included in the book and then I discovered that she wrote this in her early-eighties, a couple of years before she died. This has since cast a new light on my experience of reading this book. I now see it as an expression of nostalgia and hope for the future by a writer at the end of her life and I plan to read more of her work very soon.
- Age: 10+
- Publisher: Pan Macmillan
- ISBN: 9781447265658
- Number of Pages: 400
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