1

One From The Archive: ‘John Diamond’ by Leon Garfield ***

Leon Garfield’s John Diamond, which was first published in 1980, has been reissued in a lovely new edition as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics range.  Peter Williamson’s cover design is marvellous, and it fits wonderfully with the darkness of the story.  Vintage have recommended that the book is suitable for everyone over the age of nine, and upon reading it from an adult stance, it is difficult to envision that anybody – indeed, of any age – would dislike it.

9780099583271The novel opens in a manner which immediately piques the interest: ‘I ought to begin with the footsteps, but first of all I must tell you that my name is William Jones and that I was twelve years old when I began to hear them’.  His father tells him whilst on his deathbed that he ‘swindled’ Mr Diamond out of a great fortune, and thus, the main thread of the story concerns William’s travels to London to ‘make amends’ with his late father’s old business partner.  The ‘murky big city, with its sinister characters and treacherous back streets’ is clearly no place for him.

William tells us that ‘This story is about my father, chiefly.  He was a tall, handsome man, with his own hair, his own teeth, and, in fact, with nothing false about him’. After his father’s death, he goes on to say, ‘I knew that, until I found Mr Diamond, neither my father nor I would ever have peace.  Night after night he would shuffle and drag across the floor, amd night after night I would hear him; unless I left the house and set out on the journey that would lay his ghost’.

John Diamond is rather atmospheric at times, and it is filled with childish and rather amusing caricatures of those around William.  His Uncle Turner, for example, with his ‘bullying face’ and ‘strong smell of peppermint’, was ‘a stern, God-fearing man, and I think the feeling must have been mutual – God, I mean, being frightened of him’.  William himself is brave and likeable, and much care and compassion is built up for him as the novel progresses.

Garfield’s novel is cleverly crafted, the first person narration works marvellously, and plot details are dripped in at intervals throughout to keep the interest of the reader.  Vintage have lovingly overseen the production of John Diamond, adding rather a fun section called ‘The Backstory’ at the end of the book, which invited readers to learn how to speak in Cockney rhyming slang, as well as providing a quiz, an author biography, and facts about London in the time in which the novel is set.  John Diamond is certainly deserving of this reprinting, and it is sure to be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
2

Furrowed Middlebrow

I’m sure that a lot of you are already familiar with Furrowed Middlebrow‘s fantastic and comprehensive ‘British Women Writers of Fiction, 1910-1960’ list (here).  If not, US blogger Scott has compiled an enormous list of just what it says above; British women writers, both popular and forgotten.  He has recently teamed up with Dean Street Press to bring some of the more neglected female authors back into the public eye, making their work more easily accessible to the modern reader.

With this in mind, I have perused the list and picked out ten novels which I very much like the look of, and will try my best to find in the weeks to come.  I would love nothing more than to work my way through Scott’s entire list, but this seems a little unrealistic, particularly with a thesis to write, and after yesterday’s announcement that I’m not doing that well with 2017’s reading challenges!

I have chosen books which I have never heard discussed for this list, and whilst all of the Dean Street Press publications (yes, all of them) appeal to me, I have deliberately not included any of them.  (That said, please go and read Ursula Orange and Frances Faviell immediately.  They are fantastic.)  For many of my choices, I have been unable to find a blurb, but have used the information which Scott has very helpfully written alongside his entries.

1. Perronelle by Valentina Hawtrey
This 1904 novel is set within fifteenth-century Paris, and is by an author who received most success with a translation of a book on Mary Magdalene.  You can read a 1904 review of the novel on the New York Times‘ site (here).

2. Island Farm by Hilda Brearley 51rd5fktvjl-_sx333_bo1204203200_
This children’s book was published in 1940, and was the first of the author’s three novels.  I cannot find much information about it aside from the following, but it sounds quirky and Enid Blyton-esque; what’s not to like?:  ‘3 children are the family of 2 unconventional archaeologists, and are sent to stay at an east-coast farmhouse.’

3. The Chinese Goose by Jean Edminson (aka Helen Robertson)
This 1960 novel sounds wonderfully strange; it is a mystery novel which revolves around a woman killed by swans.  I’ve never read anything quite like it, but am suitably intrigued!

4. Alice by Elizabeth Eliot
Alice was published in 1950, and compared to Nancy Mitford.  Scott deems it ‘clever’ and ‘darkly humorous’.  Kirkus Review writes the following: ‘A first novel which has considerable charm, an insouciant brightness, and a definite knowledge of the rather worldly world from which it derives- the indolent, elegant upper classes in England between the wars. As told by Margaret, her oldest friend, this follows the story of Alice from the time when they attend a rather impossible finishing school. Everything Alice does goes badly; she seems attuned to failure in her search for emotional security, the only thing she wants. The first boy she loves is appropriated by her older sister; she marries Cassius Skeffington, a self-absorbed, self-indulgent exquisite; she has an affair with a bluff but bad-tempered older man; and as finally she makes a success in the theatre, she obliterates reality when she loses her memory, her identity… The early scenes here, of both these jeunes filles en fleur and their devastating deflation of their elders and betters are highly entertaining; and if the wit here is more disarming and not quite as deadly as Nancy Mitford’s- who deals with much this same type of milieu- there should be a parallel public.’

vaughan-thinkofnoughttitlepage5. A Thing of Nought by Hilda Vaughan
This 1934 novel is Vaughan’s most famous, and is set in her native Wales.  It tells a couple who fall in love, but have to be separated when Penry Price, the youngest of five sons of a farming family, has to go to Australia in order to make enough money to marry his sweetheart.  Scott’s beguiling review of A Thing of Nought can be found here.

6. The Two Windows by Mary Cleland
I can find hardly any information about this 1922 novel, but Scott has found a charming quote from the Queenslander, which deems it ‘something fragrant, delicate, and altogether charming’.

7. The House by the Sea by Jon Godden
Jon Godden, real name Winsome Ruth Key Godden, was the older sister of the far more famous Rumer.  She wrote twelve novels of her own, and the siblings also co-authored several tomes.  This particular novel is about a woman named Edwina, who is able to embark on her own, free life after being left some money.  The lovely Jane at Beyond Eden Rock wrote an utterly splendid review of The House by the Sea, which can be found here.

8. Before the Wind by Janet Laing

Before the Wind is a 1918 novel, an ‘energetic comedy’, which focuses upon a young woman who serves as a companion to ‘two eccentric women in wartime Scotland’.  It sounds as though it includes everything I look for in a novel, and I shall be very pleased indeed when I can find my own copy!

9. Sallypark by Margaret Hassett 35490183
This entertaining story by the author of ‘Educating Elizabeth’ etc., tells of the experience of Mrs. Warmbath, a widow, when visiting her cousins the Hartes in Cork.  The atmosphere at Sallypark is extremely well done. The father is a local doctor, who keeps his three daughters in subjection and refuses to let any of them marry; the daughters, while paying respect to their father, carry on their love affairs behind his back; Mrs. Warmbath, against her will, gets involved in these affairs, and manages the father so successfully that the family become suspicious of her motive.  However all ends well in this highly amusing tale.

10. The Tinsel November by Julia Rhys
This 1962 children’s book is wonderfully described as as: “A fantasy tale of a gloomy All Hallow’s Eve, an old English house, some mysterious antique marionettes and a magical time of dark November days which will usher in the candle-glow of Christmas.”  It sounds utterly splendid, and I’m hoping that copies won’t be too difficult to find by the time the year is out!

 

Have you read any of these books?  Are you, too, wishing that you could work through the entirety of the Furrowed Middlebrow list, or are you actually in the process of doing so?  If so, which has been your favourite discovery to date?

0

One From the Archive: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott ****

I first encountered Little Women when I was seven or eight; I distinctly remember opening it on a cold December day and bemoaning the fact that I had to stop reading it when our family friends came round for lunch, simply because I could not tear myself away.  Whilst I so enjoyed my first encounter with the March sisters, for some reason I had not picked up the novel since.  I decided to add it to my Classics Club list merely because I felt that a re-read was long overdue.

9780147514011I am sure that Little Women has been a part of the childhoods of many, but I will recap the main details of the story for those who have perhaps not come across it before, or are yet to read the novel.  The four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – all in their formative years, begin their tale by lamenting over having to forfeit their usual Christmas presents due to it being ‘a hard winter for everyone’.  Their mother tells them that she thinks ‘we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army’.  The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which adds a relatively dark and ever-present edge to the whole.   Their father – a hero of sorts – is fighting in the conflict, and it is his reference to his daughters as ‘little women’ that gives the novel its title.

I found myself automatically endeared to bookish Jo and young Amy, whose initial slips in vocabulary were rather adorable.  Jo is headstrong and very determined about those things which matter to her: ‘I’m not [a young lady]!  And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…  I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster!  It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!  I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy!’  The dynamic between the sisters is so well crafted; there are squabbles and rivalries from time to time, but an overriding sense of love – even adoration for one another – cushions the whole.

Alcott sets the scene immediately; in just the first few pages, we find out that the Marches are relatively poor, and the detailed jobs which the girls have had to take on to aid their mother in the running of the household and the monetary needs of the family.  Her descriptions are lovely: ‘A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine’.  She is very perceptive of her characters, the girls particularly; whilst they are part of the same unit, each separate protagonist is so distinctive due to the varied character traits which prevail in their personas.  Meg is sensible, Jo concerned about maintaining a tough outer image, Beth kindly and sensitive, and Amy aware of what she believes is her own importance in the world.  Their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee, too, is well crafted, and the initial description which Alcott gives of her is darling: ‘a tall, motherly lady with a “can I help you” look about her which was truly delightful.  She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world’.

I really like the way in which Little Women begins around Christmastime; parts of it made for a wonderful and cosy festive read.  The novel is incredibly well written, and the dialogue throughout has been well constructed.  The conversations which the characters have – particularly those which take place between the sisters – are believable, and all daily mundanity has been left out for the mostpart.

Little Women is an absolute delight to read – it is endearing, sweet, amusing and engaging, and the storyline holds interest throughout.  A lot can be learnt from this novel; the girls may not have all that much by way of possessions or money, but they always make the best of their lot, and know how to appreciate everything about them.  Through her characters especially, Alcott is rather wise at times.  I personally preferred the girls far more when they were younger; they were still interesting constructs as adults, but they were nowhere near as endearing, and for that reason alone, the novel receives a four star rating from me.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell ****

I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays, cultivating the image, as I am, of a sensible PhD student.  Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye.  Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book.  The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.

9781471404627From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately.  The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine.  Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’.  When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John.  John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.

Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above.  The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of.  At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’.  There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led.  When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.

Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’.  With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach.  She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.

The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight.  But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet.  Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.

Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic.  She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic.  The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon.  Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er).  I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Thursday’s Children’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden is the author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction, for both children and adults. Virago have recently reprinted a handful of her books to add to their impressive canon of women’s fiction. First published in 1984, Thursday’s Children is amongst the newest offerings. As its title suggests, this novel is based upon the childhood rhyme ‘Monday’s Child’, in which ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’ – a definite precedent for the story which Godden has woven. 9781844088485

Thursday’s Children focuses upon a young boy named Doone Penny, who was ‘born to dance’. His sister Crystal, also a dancer, receives much of the attention in the Penny family, and Doone’s brothers and father look upon him with something akin to contempt at times, believing that any boy who enjoys ballet is the worst kind of ‘sissy’. He is the youngest child in rather a large family, a surprise baby who was born to a mother who wanted her beloved daughter, born after four boys, to be her last. ‘To be the youngest in a family is supposed to be enviable, but that is in fairy-tales; with four older brothers and an important older sister, Doone rarely had a chance to speak’. From the start, Doone is not treasured as he should have been: ‘… he was an unsatisfactory child… [he] was persistently ragamuffin, his socks falling down, his shoes scuffed… he was often puzzled and, often, when spoken to seemed curiously absent, too dreamy to be trusted with the simplest message. He was to be a failure at school – every term a worse report – did not learn to read properly till he was ten and was so silent that he seemed to Ma secretive’.

The first part of the novel opens with Doone’s spoilt elder sister complaining about having to take her brother along to the dance class which she attends. Since his early childhood, Doone has been largely ignored by those around him, and even his mother sees him as somewhat of a burden. He is an incredibly musical child and is taught to play the mouth organ when a tiny little boy by a wonderfully crafted little man named Beppo who helps out in his father’s North London grocery shop. When Beppo is forced to leave his employment, Doone realises ‘that now there was nobody who wanted him’. When the eldest brother, Will, suggests that he should be given lessons in his beloved mouth organ as it is unfair that the majority of the family’s money is spent on Crystal and her dancing, Ma Penny says, ‘… when, in a family, one child has real talent, the rest have to make some sacrifice’.

Doone’s own love of dancing is realised when he is given the opportunity to attend a professional ballet performance with his mother. He begins to have clandestine dance classes along with four other London boys. It is a coming of age novel of the most satisfying type. We see Doone, our protagonist, grow before our eyes, and triumph over the situations and family members which try to overcome him.

Dance runs throughout the entire book, as one might expect given the storyline. However, Godden has gone further than merely to write about dance. Indeed, the novel is presented as something akin to a theatre programme, outlining the ‘cast list’ before it begins, and opening with a ‘Prelude’, which sets out the ‘World Premiere of Yuri Koszorz’s “Leda and the Swan”‘. Here, Doone has been cast as a cygnet: ‘No boy of that age, in Mr Max’s remembrance, had been entrusted with dancing a solo role in a ballet at the Royal Theatre’. Despite this prelude merely being Doone’s dream, these nice touches to the book launch us straight into the life of the ballet.

Godden’s writing is marvellous. She weaves an absorbing story and intersperses it with touching anecdotes about its characters, pitch perfect dialogue and the loveliest of descriptions. The settings which she uses come to life in the mind of the reader: ‘It was only a prelude; the music changed, the clouds came down, and Doone could feel an almost magnetic stir in the audience beyond the orchestra pit’, and ‘the Royal Theatre, for an English-born dancer, was not only the Mecca, the peak of ambition, but also home’. Her love of dancing and the theatre shines through on every page: ‘the music, the lights, the little girls – it seemed to him a hundred little girls – all in party dresses and dancing shoes, moving to the music in what seemed to him a miracle of marching, running, leaping’. Her character descriptions, too, give us a real feel for the leading men and women of the book: ‘It was difficult to believe Pa had once been a romantic young man who, when he was not learning to be a greengrocer, willingly went without tea or supper to go to a musical or a revue’.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

Really Underrated Books (Part One)

I’m sure I’m not alone when I express my love for Goodreads lists.  I’m not really a reader of popular fiction, and prefer those works which sneak under the radar for the mostpart, so the ‘underrated’ section for books to buy and consequently fall in love with is perfect for me.  To procrastinate ever so slightly from a proofreading manuscript, I have decided to detail fifty very underrated books which I have my eye on over the next week.  They are certainly a mixed bag, but all have intrigued me.  Have you read any of these?

 

1. Collected Stories by Wallace Stegner 9780143039792
‘In a literary career spanning more than fifty years, Wallace Stegner created a remarkable record of the history and culture of twentieth-century America. Each of the thirty-one stories contained in this volume embody some of the best virtues and values to be found in contemporary fiction, demonstrating why the author is acclaimed as one of America’s master storytellers.’

 

2. The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis
‘Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) is one of the most alluring and memorable characters in the fiction of the last twenty-five years. His extravagant and hopeless undertakings, his brushes with the law and scrapes with death, and his enduring friendships and unlooked-for love affairs make him a Don Quixote for our day, driven from one place to another by a restless and irregular quest for the absolute. Álvaro Mutis’s seven dazzling chronicles of the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll have won him numerous honors and a passionately devoted readership throughout the world. Here for the first time in English all these wonderful stories appear in a single volume in Edith Grossman’s prize-winning translation.’

 

97800620590553. The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell
‘There was once a little brown bat who couldn’t sleep days—he kept waking up and looking at the world. Before long he began to see things differently from the other bats who from dawn to sunset never opened their eyes. The Bat-Poet is the story of how he tried to make the other bats see the world his way.  With illustrations by Maurice Sendak, The Bat-Poet—a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book selection—is a collection of the bat’s own poems and the bat’s own world: the owl who almost eats him; the mockingbird whose irritable genius almost overpowers him; the chipmunk who loves his poems, and the bats who can’t make heads or tails of them; the cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and sparrows who fly in and out of Randall Jarrell’s funny, lovable, truthful fable. ‘

 

4. An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton
‘An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”! For those who have ever wondered if the familiar “pride of lions” and “gaggle of geese” were only the tip of a linguistic iceberg, James Lipton has provided the definitive answer: here are hundreds of equally pithy, and often poetic, terms unearthed by Mr. Lipton in the Books of Venery that were the constant study of anyone who aspired to the title of gentleman in the fifteenth century. When Mr. Lipton’s painstaking research revealed that five hundred years ago the terms of venery had already been turned into the Game of Venery, he embarked on an odyssey that has given us a “slouch of models,” a “shrivel of critics,” an “unction of undertakers,” a “blur of Impressionists,” a “score of bachelors,” and a “pocket of quarterbacks.” This ultimate edition of An Exaltation of Larks is Mr. Lipton’s brilliant answer to the assault on language and literacy in the last decades of the twentieth century. In it you will find more than 1,100 resurrected or newly minted contributions to that most endangered of all species, our language, in a setting of 250 witty, beautiful, and remarkably apt engravings.’

 

5. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon by Marjorie Kellogg
‘Junie Moon, Warren, and Arthur meet in the hospital and decide to live together when they leave. Each is coping with a disability with courage, strength, and friendship.’

 

6. The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman 9780449211779
‘When the quiet and shy Amelia Jones reads these words, her life changes irrevocably. She’s just become the new owner of the Ebbtide Shop, a musty antique store filled with merry-go-round horses and hurdy-gurdies, and it is while fixing one of these barrel organs that the scrawled and threatening note falls out. Armed only with the strange woman’s first name and the note written years before, Amelia begins a journey into the past, a search that takes her from the protective cocoon she’s wrapped herself in to a precarious world where passions boil underneath the surface, where nothing is the way it seems, where fear is second nature, and dark secrets just might uncover murder—her own…’

 

7. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall
‘Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody were in many ways our American Brontes. The story of these remarkable sisters — and their central role in shaping the thinking of their day — has never before been fully told. Twenty years in the making, Megan Marshall’s monumental biograpy brings the era of creative ferment known as American Romanticism to new life. Elizabeth, the oldest sister, was a mind-on-fire thinker. A powerful influence on the great writers of the era — Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau among them — she also published some of their earliest works. It was Elizabeth who prodded these newly minted Transcendentalists away from Emerson’s individualism and toward a greater connection to others. Mary was a determined and passionate reformer who finally found her soul mate in the great educator Horace Mann. The frail Sophia was a painter who won the admiration of the preeminent society artists of the day. She married Nathaniel Hawthorne — but not before Hawthorne threw the delicate dynamics among the sisters into disarray. Marshall focuses on the moment when the Peabody sisters made their indelible mark on history. Her unprecedented research into these lives uncovered thousands of letters never read before as well as other previously unmined original sources. The Peabody Sisters casts new light on a legendary American era. Its publication is destined to become an event in American biography. This book is highly recommended for students and reading groups interested in American history, American literature, and women’s studies. It is a wonderful look into 19th-century life.’

 

97801411837498. Southern Mail by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
‘In his first novel, Saint-Exupéry pays homage to “those elemental divinities-night, day, mountain, sea, and storm,” turning an account of a routine mail flight from France to North Africa into an epic rendering of the pioneer days of commercial aviation. The book is also a poignant reminiscence of a tragic affair, in which the uncertainties of love and flight enhance the mystery of one another.’

 

9. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: Stories by Amy Hempel
‘Amy Hempel’s collection of 16 stories seems to ask: “What if people could be just a little more like dogs – -forever loyal, ardent and loving in our hearts?”‘

 

10. Later the Same Day by Grace Paley
‘In the 17 short stories collected here, Paley writes with verbal economy and resonance, pithy insights, and warmth and humor. The themes are familiar: friendship, commitment, responsibility, love, political idealism and activism, children, the nuclear shadow.’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne ***

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.

‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository