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  • Jean Rafferty


In the bleak aftermath of war a little girl is left alone to scavenge for existence in a mysterious community which has no official place for her. Traumatised by being abandoned, haunted by unreachable memories, Rue at first refuses to speak. Only through nature and when kind strangers create a safe space for her, does she begin to make some kind of life for herself.

Lost People by Margaret Elphinstone is the heartbreaking story of how one child grows to adulthood dealing with unspeakable trauma. A novella, it is written in limpid prose as beautiful and spare as the character of Rue herself.

She chooses her name herself. Her joy – and later her job – is to care for the community’s herb garden and rue, of course, symbolises regret, sorrow. It is the condition the little girl lives in. We never find out exactly what happened to her, though later in her life, when she goes searching for some answers, we see ruined villages, slopes ‘scarred by explosions,’ soldiers in the streets. This war ravaged country is full of lost people.

Vast stretches of today’s world have been ravaged by war and there are many Rue’s wandering the world alone. Although we never know where the country is or what the war was about, Elphinstone’s economic style is resonant and manages to signify a whole culture. Rue is given a little dog to look after and names her Cosette, after one of the books she read as a child in the community’s school - the character is the little girl in Les Misérables brutalised by the Thénardiers, the family paid to look after her. A second dog, Jo, is based on the poor crossing sweeper in Bleak House. Even Rue’s name suggests a hinterland of symbolism belying the simplicity of the language – rue is one of the plants Ophelia carries when driven mad with grief.

One of the truly remarkable things about the book is the way it conveys the beauty of nature without using flowery language. The story could become mawkish in less assured hands - Rue experiences the healing power both of immersing herself in nature and of caring for another creature, the traumatised little dog Cosette, but those relationships are never sentimentalised. In fact Rue is neither soft nor kind herself and that somehow makes her looking after Cosette and then the second little stray dog, Jo, all the more touching. She herself is solitary, but her creation of the garden and her tolerance of the children who want to dig in it, the older people who want to sit in it, give the people around her immense pleasure.

Without referring to modern warfare, Margaret Elphinstone shows us a life stripped back and remade in the way less fortunate people round the world are having to do right now, in Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, elsewhere... ‘I suppose we’re all thinking about how to express what’s happening in the world and how anyone can just be,’ she says.

Lost People is at once beautiful and moving, creating a character both unusual and universal in Rue. A book to take time out with, to allow to just be in your consciousness.

Published by the Iona Books’ Wild Goose imprint, it is available at £8.99 from: 

Margaret Elphinstone is a distinguished author with eight novels, poetry, and short stories to her credit. A graduate of Durham University and Emeritus Professor of Strathclyde University, her The Sea Road, published in 2000, received a Scottish Arts Council Award and earned a place in The List magazine's 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time.


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