Author: William Horwood
Details: (c) 1982 Steppenmole Enterprises Ltd; Pub Hamlyn Paperbacks 1983; ISBN 0-600-20604-1
Verdict: The Stonor Eagles is effective despite being on the melodramatic side.
Reasons for reading it: I had more or less run out of new books by the end of the year, so I was rereading some old favourites while travelling and not awake enough to handle anything amazingly complicated. Also, reading My name is Asher Lev made me think of books about art.
How it came into my hands: A charity shop somewhere on the south coast, I think probably Portsmouth rather than Southampton, some time in the early 90s. I bought it because blue_mai had enthused about it, even though I was not terribly impressed with the badger books by the same author.
The Stonor Eagles is one of the small handful of books I regularly reread. Technically, there's a lot wrong with it; it's horribly bloated, and it tries for mythic and doesn't quite make it, and the emotional pitch is just a little too high throughout. But the things that it gets right it does very well, most notably characterization, and I'm always a sucker for that. And what it's trying to do is original even if it isn't always perfectly successful: interweaving the fictional biography of the eponymous artist, with the myth of the sea eagles. It was a very suitable book for me as a teenager, because at that age I wasn't bothered by the melodramatic tone (my favourite book at around this time was A tale of two cities!) and it made a useful bridge from children's books to adult ones. Even since then I've often found myself lending it to people, and I read quite a lot of it aloud to darcydodo (being in love like being a teenager made me forgiving of melodramatic tendencies).
Reading it sober now I still like it a lot, though my past positive associations doubtless bias me in its favour. I got sort of bored with a lot of the eagle bits; there is some sense of their eagle-ness, but not quite enough to save them from being anthropomorphic. Still, they are interesting characters that happen to be eagle-shaped, and there are powerful moments in the created mythos, even if some of it falls on the wrong side of pretentiously over-written. The human stories are a lot of fun though, and the way that the book jumps about between times rather than working linearly really strengthens it as a story. There's a clear sense of time in it; by including several generations, it showcases the effects of WWI and the 60s cultural shift at a very personal level, and really gives a strong emotional impression of the way the world changed in the course of the 20th century. And tSE does a really superlative job with the minor characters.
I am still, after several readings, unsure whether the book has really awful gender politics, or whether it's just Stonor who does. A big part of the plot hinges on a dichotomy between sexual women and good women, and I have never seen vagina dentata issues expressed so blatantly outside bad feminist satire. Actually, the whole relationship with Judith Shure bugs me, mainly because she is too "perfect" in a creepy way where perfect means "sexual attraction to an idealized mother figure", but also for the more minor creepiness of the romantic arc making a big deal out of giving the poor little Jewish girl a proper Christmas tree. At the same time, there is an amazing amount of sympathy for Mrs Stonor, who is portrayed initially through Jim's eyes as a bad, neglectful mother but then we get her POV and a profound depiction of how hard it was for her, marrying Liam Mcaskill at a time when that was the only way a woman could escape from a domineering father, dealing with his war-related trauma, and finding herself dealing with four sons single-handed after his breakdown.
I hesitate to recommend tSE to anyone who is not a teenaged girl or at least someone with a high tolerance for romantic tropes. At the same time, I don't know many books with comparable strengths.