Reviews /

A Drop of Golden Sun

Authored by Kate Saunders
Published by Faber and Faber

Kate Saunders’s posthumous final novel is a joyous and nostalgic story about a summer spent filming a Hollywood musical on location in France in 1973. Most adult readers will immediately spot the allusion to The Sound of Music in the book’s title, which is clearly Saunders’s inspiration for The Music Makers: both films feature a musical family escaping from the Nazis, as well as a widowed father falling in love with a new governess. But instead of seven Von Trapp children in Salzburg, there are four Daudet siblings in occupied France, and the child actors who play these siblings are at the heart of this novel.

We see everything through the eyes of ten-year-old Jenny, who has been cast as Berthe Daudet, the second youngest sibling. Unlike her precocious younger co-star Belinda (who has two films, an episode of Z-Cars and a Garden Peas commercial under her belt), this is Jenny’s first experience of showbusiness. We follow Jenny and her film siblings from their final audition when they become an ‘instant family… like instant mashed potato’ through rehearsals in London and shooting the film in France over the course of a glorious summer.

The novel is bursting with fascinating details about how films are (and were) made, many of which wouldn’t occur to most readers, such as having to wear warm clothes in the heat of summer. Early on in filming, Jenny realises that acting involves ‘little snatches of pretending things in the middle of hours of waiting’, but Saunders nonetheless captures the transformative power of acting, as Jenny is ‘surprised at how different everything became when they were actually filming: the pretending was so intense that it was like slipping into another reality.’

There is plenty of jeopardy – not least when the legendary but temperamental actor Poldoni arrives on set – and the children repeatedly play a key role in averting crisis. But this story is about much more than the making of a film: it is about family, friendship and growing up. All the children face different challenges – Jenny lost her father at a young age, Belinda’s mother has an alcohol addiction, and their older screen sister Harriet’s father is in a mental health hospital – but they all learn more about themselves and each other as they become closer. A key theme of the novel is not judging by appearances. Jenny is a shy character who finds it difficult to make friends, and she is initially intimidated by many of her co-stars, but she comes to love and understand all of them.

The historical background to the film is also explored in a nuanced way. The war is still a painful memory for the adult cast and crew, and sometimes a source of tension. One of the German actors remarks that ‘if we wish to work in the American movies, we must always be Nazis’ while a Jewish actor playing a non-Jewish character has to deal with seeing a non-Jewish actor playing a Jewish character. The Daudets are an invention of the author, but are presented as a real-life family within the novel like the Von Trapps were, and one of the most moving scenes is when Jenny meets the actual Berthe Daudet, ‘the girl she had thought about so much; the girl whose childhood had been filled with danger, who had grown up into this elegant lady.’

As mentioned above, the novel does incorporate darker themes such as bereavement, addiction and mental illness, but with great sensitivity, making this an ideal book to share with older primary readers, but it will also be enjoyed by many adult readers. The golden summer which marks a transition from innocence to experience is a staple of children’s literature, and while the ending of the summer is bittersweet, in this book it also lives on through the magic of film and the magic of Saunders’s writing.