I adore John Boyne’s fiction (few books make me cry, but his A Boy in The Striped Pyjamas is one of those which never fails to induce tears), but I must admit that I have been a little disappointed with a couple of his novels. The first was The Absolutist, which I really didn’t enjoy, despite my love of its wartime setting. I took a bit of a gamble in that case in reading Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, which is set during the First World War, but it looked too sweet not to request on Netgalley. Plus, Oliver Jeffers’ cover illustration is beautiful.
The premise of this children’s novel is most interesting:
The day that the First World War began, Alfie Summerfield’s father promised he wouldn’t go away to fight – but he broke that promise the very next morning. Four years on, his letters have stopped, and all Alfie knows is that he’s far away on a special secret mission.
In Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, Boyne has crafted the story of a young boy who has to grow up in the face of wartime, and who has to become the man of the house at such an early age, even deciding to secretly become a shoeshine boy in King’s Cross Station to help his mother out with money. Whilst Alfie does not always understand what is going on around him, he experiences some quite horrid events. His friend, a young girl named Kalena Janacek, and her Czech father are taken away, believed to be ‘spies’. Boyne describes the way in which: ‘The last Alfie saw of them was Mr Janacek weeping in the back of the van while Kalena stared out of the window behind her at Alfie, waving silently’.
The First World War began on Alfie’s fifth birthday, and the few memories he had of his father are diminishing. Throughout, his childish naivety has been well captured. There is an overriding sense of humour which Boyne has used at intervals, which nicely balances out the horrors of war that the adults around Alfie speak about: ‘Georgie and Margie had been very old when they got married… His dad had been almost twenty-one and his mum was only a year younger. Alfie found it hard to imagine what it would be like to be twenty-one years old. He thought that it would be difficult to hear things and that your sight would be a little fuzzy’.
Boyne has built up the social and emotional history of World War One well. I imagine that reading such a story would be a good tool to help children to understand the devastation and destruction which battles on such a wide scale can bring – death, weaponry, conscientious objectors – as well as practical ways in which the population of Britain coped in the face of such adversity, by reusing things and rationing.
The third person perspective has been put to good use, but one element of the novel did not sit well for me as an adult reader. Alfie seemed rather too grown up for a five-year-old at times – for example, he knows all about voting for the prime minister, and speaks of it as though he is far older and wiser than his age suggests.
Boyne is a diverse author, and whilst this was not my favourite of his books (I truly doubt that anything could beat the beautifully haunting The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas for me), it has to be said that he writes just as well for children as for adults.