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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.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Absolutist’ by John Boyne **

First published in August 2012.

The Absolutist begins in Norwich in September 1919, a period in which the country is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the First World War. The novel’s opening line is both gripping and intriguing: ‘Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years’. Despite this, however, the novel gets off to rather a slow start and seems to meander along, filling space for the sake of it rather than enticing the reader.

Tristan Sadler, a former soldier, has travelled from London to Norwich to meet Marian Bancroft, the sister of one of his comrades in the trenches. Tristan describes how he and Marian’s brother Will ‘were in the same regiment so we knew each other well. We were friends’. He then goes on to say ‘no matter what anyone says, he was the bravest and kindest man I ever knew and there were plenty of brave men out there, I can promise you that, but not so many kind ones’. His aim in visiting Marian is to return the many letters which she sent to her brother during the war, all of which have been bundled together and rather touchingly tied with a strand of red ribbon.

The second section of the novel goes back to Aldershot in 1916, where the soldiers about to be sent to the front, all of them ‘stinking of sweat and bogus heroism’, are being trained up in the town’s military barracks. The relationship which unfolds between Will and Tristan here is rendered sensitively, and the sadness regarding Will’s execution for refusing to fight is moving in places. He is the ‘absolutist’ of the novel’s title, one who is said to do nothing ‘except sit on his hands and complain that the whole thing’s a sham’.

Whilst no details of Tristan’s war experiences are released at the outset of The Absolutist, it is clear that he has suffered from his time in the trenches. He describes his ‘spasmodic right hand’ and ‘trembling index finger’, and is unwilling to talk about his experiences, even when he is pressed to do so. Memories of his pre-war past are occasionally touched upon but are sometimes not fleshed out convincingly enough. We learn a little about his fractured relationship with his family and his father’s last words uttered in anger before Tristan left for war: ‘it would be best for all of us if the Germans shoot you dead on sight’.

The entirety of the book is told from the first person perspective of twenty-one-year-old Tristan. His narrative voice feels rather simplistic throughout and, in consequence, seems lacking. This is perhaps due to it not being overly poetic in its style, or with regard to the way in which the vocabulary used exudes an air of arrogance. Indeed, for at least the first half of the novel, Tristan is not a likeable character. Something about his general demeanour is difficult to warm to. He seems very sure of himself and spends time making up details about each person he meets, an act which renders him incredibly judgmental. He weaves these fabrications into the narrative, following each instance of them with ‘I decided’. As a consequence, we as readers do not really get to know the rest of the characters, and only see Tristan’s sometimes skewed interpretations of them. Throughout, the complete strangers which Tristan encounters seem to be too familiar with him. They seem to give him their entire life story whilst learning barely anything about his life or character in return. This seems a rather unlikely turn of events, and one which does not lend itself well to the novel.

Boyne has included rather a lot of social commentary about conditions at the time – war work for women, the ‘morality’ regarding homosexuals, teenagers signing up to fight – but none of these subjects has been dealt with in detail and have been merely touched upon in rather a fleeting manner. Some of Boyne’s writing, though, is startling and even incredibly powerful at times: ‘The barracks were filled with ghosts… It was as if we died before we left England’. The author is certainly at his best when describing the horrors of the trenches, and he renders a definite sense of poignancy in stark phrases such as ‘the sooner everyone’s killed, the sooner it’s all over’.

The majority of the character descriptions throughout are written well and with much precision. The woman on the train is ‘a sharp combination of lavender and face cream, her mouth viscous with blood-red lipstick’, a young man who runs a boarding house with his mother in Norwich has a moustache which is ‘teased into a fearful line across his upper lip’, and a former soldier encountered on the train platform has one of his eyes ‘sealed across as if he had recently been in a fight’.

Particularly with regard to the first quarter of the book, much of the dialogue feels a little too modern to fit with the period in question. Marian Bancroft’s discourse, however, is pitch perfect for the majority of the exchanges in which she features, and this is one of the definite strengths of the novel.

To conclude, the final three quarters of The Absolutist seem to be rendered with far more strength and skill than that which can be found in the beginning of the novel. The reader does feel some sympathy for Tristan as his story unfolds, and he becomes a more lifelike character in consequence. The unpredictable intricacies woven deftly into the plot render The Absolutist a sad, poignant and unsettling read, but the final section of the book which is told in retrospect does sadly detract from the overall power of the book.

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Flash Reviews (16th January 2014)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender ****

‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender

I had been looking forward to reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake for rather a long time, ever since I spotted its delicious title and striking cover design in Birmingham’s main branch of Waterstone’s just after its publication.  I read it whilst on holiday in France in December, and found its prose pure poetry.  Rose Edelstein, our protagonist, is in the third grade when she samples a lemon cake baked by her mother, and finds that thereafter, ‘Every food has a feeling’.  Rose can tell, just by nibbling a particular foodstuff, how its chef was feeling as they were making it.

Bender has created such a thoughtful novel, and I warmed to Rose and her family immediately.  She writes beautifully.  The narrative voice which she has crafted is both believable and flows wonderfully.  The way in which she has made use of all of the senses throughout is masterful, and it makes the entirety of the novel so very vivid.  Bender is an author whose works I shall actively seek out in future.  I sense that I have some real treats in store.

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Clock Without Hands – Carson McCullers ***
I had been meaning to read Clock Without Hands for quite some time before I finally began to.  I kept picking it up and then not getting around to it.  It travelled with me to Menorca in September, where I got distracted by my Kindle and the use of a swimming pool, and it has been in my bag on several occasions since.  I took it to France on the same trip which I mentioned above, in the hope that I would finally get around to it.

I love McCullers’ writing.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my favourite novels, dripping with beauty and emotion.  Clock Without Hands tells the story of J.T. Malone, a pharmacist living in a small town in Georgia, who is diagnosed with leukaemia.  He is given between a year and fifteen months to live.  From the start, the story which McCullers presents is quite engrossing, and she builds up sympathy for her protagonist immediately.  The racial disparities throughout are exemplified well, particularly towards the end of the novel.  Sadly, it did not feel as thoughtful or as thought-provoking as the other novels of hers which I’ve read to date.  I enjoyed it on the whole, and I felt that the ending was marvellous, but I doubt that it is a book which I will pick up again in a hurry.

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The House of Special Purpose – John Boyne ****
My boyfriend very kindly bought this for me as a congratulations present for reaching my 2012 reading target.  I was eager to start it, loving Russian history as much as I do.  As soon as I opened the first page, I was immediately immersed into the story.  The House of Special Purpose is based upon the last months of the lives of the Romanovs, the royal family who were cruelly murdered during the First Bolshevik Revolution in February 1917.  Alongside their story, Boyne has crafted a fictional narrator, and the mixture of both plots works so well.

The plot was appealing, and the characters were so well crafted.  As with all of Boyne’s novels, his scenes are vivid and his plots believable.  I love the way in which he is faultlessly able to insert his protagonists into some of the biggest events in history, often in quite unusual ways.  Here, a seventeen-year-old boy named Georgy is taken from his rural Russian village in order to protect Tsarevich Alexei, after one gracious act causes him to be seen as a hero.  This story runs concurrently alongside that of when Georgy has become old, and is losing his wife to cancer.  The entire plot was thoughtfully constructed, and I admire Boyne for treating the Romanovs with the utmost respect throughout.  I did not adore this novel as I did The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, but as far as historical novels go, The House of Special Purpose is a great and gripping one.

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‘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.