This children’s book is the best thing I’ve read all month and will probably be one of my books of the year. I’ve been a great admirer of Hilary McKay since first reading The Exiles years ago and this book is what you’d expect from her: well written and full of characters you care about. The story begins in the early years of the twentieth century, which fills the adult reader with the dread of foreknowledge. First, there’s Peter and Clarry, brother and sister living with their distant and uncaring father in a cold and neglected house. The children live for their annual visit to their grandparents in Cornwall, where they find sun, sea and endless happy days with their cousin Rupert, a golden boy. Later, there’s Simon, ‘the bony one’, Peter’s schoolfriend and Simon’s sister Vanessa, who becomes Clarry’s best friend. The relations between these five children take the story into their adulthood.
Clarry is an adorable heroine. She’s loving, even when she gets little return for her love from an indifferent father and bad-tempered brother and unquestioningly accepting of the hardness of her life. Luckily, after meeting Vanessa, she determines to go to the Grammar School, where she turns out to be clever. Her father considers education for girls a waste of time but with the help of teachers and Peter, Clarry learns to be ambitious. Poor girl; she’s so badly dressed, so naïve, so anxious to help and please everyone. This makes her sound like a horrid little prig but she so isn’t.
By the time war breaks out, only Rupert is old enough to fight. The others are all still at school and Peter can never be a soldier because of a crippled leg. Life on the home front consists of endless making do, worrying, writing letters to the front and for Vanessa, nursing. Naturally, no one at home can imagine the horrors of the Western Front and Rupert does not enlighten them. Tragedy, humour, love and friendship are all mixed together in a very enjoyable way.
I do have a caveat. The publishers aim this book at nine to eleven-year-olds. When I was nine I had frightened myself reading Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist but most of my fiction reading consisted of happy family stories by Monica Edwards, Noel Streatfeild and Jane Shaw. How would I have coped with slaughtered horses, massacred men and homosexuality? I can’t imagine. Modern children are more exposed to horrors than we were and it’s up to parents to decide whether a book like this is nightmare-inducing or life-enhancing. I think the latter.
I read this thanks to the publishers and NetGalley and it will be out on 20th September. Only a month to wait!