In Sadie Jones’ ‘Amy and Lan,’ time spent with these unusual children is worth cherishing

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Sadie Jones (“The Outcast,” “The Uninvited Guests”) is extraordinarily skilled at creating small worlds rife with hidden dramas.

In “Amy and Lan,” she takes us to Frith Farm (frith means sanctuary in Norse). Our narrators are Amy and Lan (for Lachlan), seven-year-old best friends, revelling in their shared freedom on the “organic smallholding” that their parents and friends have reclaimed from dereliction.

We begin in autumn 2005, when anticipation about who gets to light the annual bonfire fairly bursts from the pages. In alternating chapters, the children introduce us to their bold and adventurous selves — Lan’s axe experiment has luckily missed Amy’s toes — and describe the weather (frequently damp and cold), moods and personalities of the adults in charge of their bit of paradise.

Handily, the farm comes with its own creation myth, “The Story,” recounted by their mothers about their flight from city life.

After “Seven Years of Bad Luck,” Lan’s mother, naturalist/earth mother Gail, realized she had been in the “Wrong Life.” Newly pregnant, she left her London marriage to stay with Harriet, her old friend in Bristol (Amy’s Mum). “Old friends are the best friends” chant the children. Both women were pregnant, both depressed by world news: “the greenhouse effect and battery chickens. And Palestine. And hurricanes.”

Adam, Amy’s dad, an actor whose career is fading, helps fund their acquisition of the old farm. A map — like you’d find in an Agatha Christie tale — allows readers to trace the movements of the community: the children’s parents, their friends Rani and Martin Hodges, Finbar, a moody loner, and Em, a reclusive divorcée. “There isn’t any ending because it’s the story of how we came to Frith. And we’re never, ever, ever leaving.” Only a cynic could harbour doubts.

Veggies are grown, stony land cleared, children are born, animals accumulate: chickens, goats, more goats, turkeys, a cow. Many are named by the children. Despite childish mistakes — Finbar did not suffer from “polio in St. Lucia,” rather he is bipolar, befriended by Harriet in St. Luke’s Hospital — Lan and Amy read tone and situation like nobody’s business, know when to shut up when fights about “boring” money erupt, and both agree that the “best two grown-ups” are Jim (Lan’s stepfather) and Harriet, determined to make Frith “a real farm.”

The adults mostly earn outside incomes; the Hodges both have “proper jobs,” Gail (irritatingly) brews herbal remedies; Adam writes a blog (“Exit Pursued by Goat”), Harriet teaches piano. Their encounters with the outside world tend to swerve hilariously sideways, exposing the chasm between the back-to-the-landers and almost everyone else.

The rewards are many. An orphaned calf (“Gabriella Christmas”) arrives one December, a gift from a neighbour, nursed indoors for months by Lan and Amy. Turkeys named Virginia and Vita are eaten when seasons dictate. When Virginia is dispatched, with kindness and respect, for Christmas (a “special ritual” plead Lan and Amy, wanting to watch) Amy describes her death in unsparing detail. Not much fun at all that, but a lesson learned about eating meat. Afterward, Lan cries, but Amy, taller, tougher, overhears her father and Gail laughing, shrewdly observing that neither of them likes difficult things. “They’re quite the same in many ways.”

How much the same will loom large in the novel’s shocker of an ending, but the years we are given with these unusual children are worth cherishing.

Midway through the book, Lan lists things that make him happy about summer: “just normal small things, like wild strawberries, sipping honey off honeysuckles, the smell of small white flowers that grow up the wall at the back of the house, rain on lettuces, watching caterpillars chew.”

His list is followed by a scene showing the community at its incandescent best. Cutting hay for the winter, which is mostly done with machines, apart from a section cut by hand using scythes. “It’s like dancing” says Rani Hodges when she finally masters her technique. So much of the story of Amy and Lan is like that: children and adults working and laughing and dancing in a world of their own. At least for a while.

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