Book Review: The Gift



Poetry, above all, is a series of intense moments – its power is not in narrative. I’m not dealing with facts, I’m dealing with emotion.

Carol Ann Duffy 

I have long been a fan of both Carol Ann Duffy (renowned poet and the first woman to hold the post of Britan’s Poet Laureate) and artist Rob Ryan, so imagine my delight when the two of them collaborated on a book called The Gift.

Combining Duffy’s lyrical prose and Ryan’s intricate papercut artwork, this is the story of a young girl who wanders off from her parents one day whilst picnicking in the woods and finds a small, magical clearing ‘…where buttercups sparkled in the sunlight’ which she at once feels at peace in.

‘A thought suddenly came to the girl – as urgent and vivid as a butterfly opening its orange wings – that she wanted to be buried in this plot of land when she died.’


The girl makes a chain from the buttercups but, no sooner has she done so, than an old woman appears out of nowhere and stands before her, asking for the buttercup necklace in exchange for her wish to be granted.

In the coming years, the girl returns often to the same clearing in the woods, which she makes her own, planting seeds and bulbs and placing special stones there. As time goes on, it becomes clear that ‘The young woman had art in her hands and she became a painter.’ We learn of her art, how she falls in love and becomes a mother and how as one season and one year rolls into the next, she takes her children to the clearing to play and to paint.


When her parents die, ‘This was a season of real darkness for the woman. She painted nothing and kept her family close, as snow whirled and shredded itself around the house,’ this dark period portrayed beautifully in the colours on the page.

But, she slowly recovered. ‘The woman’s life brought happiness in love and art and her children grew and flourished.’


The time then arrives when she takes her grandchildren to her clearing with the help of a walking stick. ‘She knew all the names of the flowers – monkshood, campion, stock, hollyhock, love-lies-bleeding, snapdragon, columbine, cornflower, wallflower, clematis, foxglove, sweet pea, flax, lupin, honesty, marigold and rose of heaven.’

But eventually, she cannot even reach the place with her walking stick and takes to her bed. As she grows weaker and weaker, she tells her family not to fear and that she wishes when the time comes to be buried in the clearing the woods. That night when she sleeps she dreams of being in her clearing and a young girl sits there making a chain with flowers. She places the chain around her neck and ‘Her head filled with a sweet, golden light and as she watched, the young girl turned and rain into the juggling shadows of the trees.’


This book is a visual and poetic delight from the first page to the last; a celebration of a life that is no way extraordinary, yet filled with the small joys and sadnesses instantly recognisable by each and every one of us. The Gift resonates with art, love and a deep appreciation of the earth, a gentle message issuing from its pages of inter-connectedness, continuity, renewal and the beauty of becoming one with special places. It is every bit as much for adults as it is for children and the small pictures I have included above or snippets of prose cannot begin to do it justice. Published by Barefoot Books, you can buy it here.

Oooh, and London people, if you are ever in the east, you must go to Columbia Road and visit Rob Ryan’s Ryantown shop. And take lots and lots of money with you, seriously.