Tag Archives: The Great War

Book Review Saturday – ‘Five Children on the Western Front’

Kate Saunders’ exquisite novel, Five Children on the Western Front, won last year’s Costa Book Award (as well as the Costa Children’s Book Award), and you only have to read the opening chapter to know why.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

I picked this book up while browsing in a bookshop a few weeks ago, and – as I’m wont – I read the first few pages. Instantly, I was dragged in, just as I was dragged in to Five Children and It, the masterful ‘source’ story by the ‘Ur’-children’s writer, E. Nesbit, first published in 1902. Beginning Saunders’ novel was like picking up a conversation with a dear friend.

I read to the end of the first chapter of Five Children on the Western Front, and by that time I was in tears. Right there in the shop, and everything. I didn’t even care. I knew I had to own this story, and so my love for it began.

The book opens with a scene which is reminiscent of one from Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, her last tale featuring the Pemberton siblings (Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and Hilary (or ‘the Lamb’)), wherein the children are whisked forward in time to catch a glimpse of what is to come. I have never read The Story of the Amulet and so I wasn’t aware until afterwards that Saunders had picked up on this detail, but somehow this level of engagement with the world Nesbit created didn’t surprise me. It’s the perfect place to begin this last instalment of the story, as it’s incredibly moving to be faced with the realisation that was so clear to Saunders – and which inspired her to write this story – that the fictional Pemberton children would have been just the ‘right’ age to have been swept up in the cogs of the Great War. This glimpse into the future in Amulet – seen by Nesbit, no doubt, as a glorious end to her sequence of tales – took on a different hue as history unfolded.

Saunders’ version of the Pembertons sees another addition – little Edith, or Edie, born after the Lamb and the new Baby of the family – and the re-emergence of the Psammead, or the Sand Fairy, who got the children into such scrapes when they were young. The Lamb and Edie have grown up on tales of the Psammead and how the ‘Bigguns’ (as they refer to their older siblings) had such wonderful adventures with him, and have always felt left out that they were too young to be included. To everyone’s surprise – not least the Psammead’s himself – the Fairy reappears just as the First World War breaks out, on the day when Cyril is to be deployed to the Front. The family is gathered to send him off, as cheerily as possible, and the Psammead needs a bit of convincing to understand that this fine handsome young man in his officer’s uniform is the same small Cyril he remembers, and this lovely young lady with her hair swept up is his Anthea, now an art student. There must be a reason why the Psammead has reappeared – but nobody knows what it is.

Stranger still, the Psammead’s magic appears to be on the wane. He can’t grant wishes like he used to, and when he does manage to spirit the children into visions and adventures, there’s something slightly odd about them; they’re not the carefree japes of the earlier books. There’s a purpose and a reason behind them all. For the Psammead has his own backstory, which we discover as we read, and the reason behind his reanimation in 1914, at a time of huge upheaval and pain, gradually becomes clear. The Psammead has a debt to pay, and he must learn how to pay it. His charming arrogance, so clear from the older novels, is intact here, and though he’s dearly loved by the children (particularly Edie, who grows firmly attached) there is an undercurrent of nastiness to the things he has done in his long-ago past, and for which he must atone. His struggle is tied up with the struggle of the war, and the lessons he learns are reflected in the realities of life in Europe in 1914-18.

This book is a masterpiece. Kate Saunders has managed at once to retain and build upon E. Nesbit’s voice while creating a new story out of Nesbit’s characters, who are so dear and familiar to anyone who knows and loves the original book and its sequels. It’s a remarkable achievement. The tone, language, setting and ‘feel’ of the book is identical with the original novels (with the exception of being slightly less ‘scattered’ in its plotting; Saunders’ work is definitely more structured than its earlier counterpart) and the characters feel seamless. At the same time Saunders has written a profoundly moving anti-war novel, which brings home the reality of losing loved ones to a distant war machine like nothing else I’ve read. The boys are enlisted; the girls go to fight in their own way, signing up to become volunteer nurses (and, because they’re ‘high-born ladies’, being disparaged for it); the children and the parents are left to worry and grieve. The novel takes in every relevant theme, including social class, the shattering effects of war on society (not just in its human toll but in terms of how it destroyed the fabric of reality, in so many ways), the devastation of loss, the hope of new love, the devotion of family, and the grim truth of life at the front. All of this is done without dwelling on the gory reality; the book is not ‘bloody’ or graphic. But it doesn’t need to be.

I’m not a bit ashamed to say I wept reading this book. It affected me in a very deep way, particularly as it drew to its magnificent close. I lost count of the amount of times the story brought tears to my eyes, but the end was devastating; and yet, devastating in a wonderful way, a way which reminded me of how much beauty there is in the world, and how important love is, and how we must never forget the war – any war, all war – and those who fell in it. During this centenary period it’s particularly important to read books like this one, and particularly important to encourage children to read books like this one, but I know this beautiful, powerful story will be read and loved for generations. It’s a marvel. You need to read it.

I’d still be fast asleep at this moment – if you children hadn’t woken me up all those years ago in 1902.’
‘I say, don’t blame us,’ the Lamb said. ‘We didn’t ask you to pop out of our gravel pit.’
Ernie had been writing rapidly in a notebook. ‘The children might’ve woken you with the power of their imagination. It must be very strong when the kids love stories as much as this lot do.’
‘No, I think it’s simpler than that,’ Jane said thoughtfully. ‘I think you were attracted to us because we were happy and we loved each other. It sounds like a small thing, but I can see now that it’s the biggest thing in the world. That’s why you came back to help us when the war broke us apart.’

(Five Children on the Western Front, p. 225)

Book Review Saturday – ‘White Feathers’

In the interests of full disclosure, I want to say that the author of this book is a person I know. We have only met in person once, but we are regular correspondents over social media and I have followed her work for some time. That said, I have done my utmost to remain objective both in my reading of the novel and the construction of this review, and I have not let any personal opinions cloud my judgement.

So. Let’s begin, shall we?

Image credit: S.J. O'Hart

Image credit: S.J. O’Hart

White Feathers is a historical romance, based in Britain and Ireland at the outbreak of the Great War, and in its observation of the time, it is note-perfect. I am passionate about the history of the First World War, and the societal mores which governed this period, so in that sense White Feathers played right into my interests. The very idea of giving someone a white feather – the notion that women were encouraged to think of themselves as being the arbiters of social justice on one hand, while the real issue, the fact that they were disenfranchised and in all real senses denied the human rights which should have been theirs without question, was left to fester on the other – is fascinating, and tragic, and terrible. Eva Downey, the heroine of this novel, isn’t a woman who takes what she is given, though, and for that reason (among many) her story is worth reading.

The Prologue of this novel gives a great sense of the story’s feel and setting. We are introduced to a young woman, sitting in a train carriage in a beam of golden light, trapped like a fly beneath amber – both in terms of her era and her story, and her literal position – and we know a tale is about to be told, one in which someone feels they deserve to take the blame for something as yet unnamed. We know that a war is taking place, and that it has taken a huge toll. This encapsulated moment of pain bursts as we begin Chapter 1, and we enter another train carriage carrying another two women, one of whom is Eva Downey and the other her guardian, Mrs Michael Stewart. Eva is being sent to a finishing school in London, which has been paid for out of a legacy left to her by a Mrs Elizabeth Jenkins as thanks for Eva’s work on a publication entitled The New Feminist. This reality has caused huge uproar in Eva’s family, not only because her stepsister Grace has not been afforded the same luxury, but because her younger sister Imelda is seriously ill with consumption, and Eva’s removal from the family throws the burden of her care onto her deeply unpleasant stepmother and largely absent father. This is on top of the fact that Eva is seen with distaste by practically everyone, being a young woman who has expressed an interest in women’s suffrage and who is, in general, no fool.

Eva settles into her new school, meeting Sybil Destouches, the great-niece of the woman whose legacy has allowed her this expensive education, as well as other girls who can’t quite get over the fact that Eva is Irish, having been born and raised in Cork. Letters home reveal that Imelda’s condition is worsening, her odious stepmother isn’t helping, and Mr Cronin – a dreadful man who wished to marry Eva, but who was rebuffed – is still hanging around. Meanwhile, in London, Eva’s feelings for her English Literature teacher, Mr Shandlin, develop from intellectual regard into something deeper, and slowly – encouraged by the incorrigible (and brilliant) Sybil – they reveal their feelings for one another.

All the time, the war hangs in the background, waiting to pounce.

Then, Imelda’s health worsens and Eva is summoned home. A pioneering new treatment exists in Switzerland for tuberculosis patients, one which plugs the holes in their diseased lungs with tiny pellets – but it is ludicrously expensive. Grace, Eva and Imelda’s stepsister, is willing to devote half her sizeable dowry to ensuring Imelda can receive this treatment, but it hinges on one huge condition: Eva must present her beloved Mr Shandlin (a man of whom her family does not approve, both because he is a mere schoolteacher as well as a ‘Conshie’, or conscientious objector, for heartfelt personal reasons) with a white feather of cowardice. If she does this, Imelda’s treatment will be paid for and her life, possibly, saved.

It will also spell the end of Eva’s own happiness.

Eva’s decision, its consequences, and the life which unfolds for her after this pivotal moment plunge us straight into the bloody, brutal heart of war. Eva and Sybil volunteer as medical aides, going to the front and witnessing the worst of humanity; Eva goes down avenues she never would have expected, bringing her into contact with a woman whose presence in her world will later bring Eva a crumb of redemption. A scene in which Eva and Sybil are in a lifeboat, abandoning a sinking ship whose propellers are still churning, was – for me – the best passage in the book, summing up the tension and needless destruction of life, and the bodily horror of what people all over Europe were experiencing at that time.

There were things I didn’t like so much, primarily the unrelenting evil of Eva’s stepmother, the way in which Grace’s story was wrapped up, and the fact that several very important parts of the novel were narrated ‘after the fact’, either in letters or simply dropped into conversation as though they were nothing. Without wishing to give away spoilers, one of these (which came near the end of the book) made me slap it shut for a while, until I recovered from my feelings of being cheated, before continuing. Having said that, perhaps it’s designed to mimic the experience of people who lived through the war, only learning important things about their loved ones once weeks or months had gone by – but I can’t say it pleased me as a reader. I also felt, perhaps, that there were a couple of coincidences too many – people being related to people, or showing up just when they were needed – but that was only a small quibble.

However, I enjoyed the setting, the unflinching look at historical reality, the character of Sybil (with the exception of one scene, which left me shouting ‘No, Sybil! What are you doing?’ at the pages), and Eva’s gentle love story. I think the strongest praise I could pay this book is to say that it kept me reading – and I’m not a person who normally goes in for grand romances. It’s a timely, touching, intelligent and lovingly written book, and it’s worth the read.



Never Forget

I’m not sure why I get so emotional around this time of year. The closer it gets to Armistice Day, the more my heartstrings swell at images and footage of people all over the world paying their respects to their war dead, and remembering their own experiences of war. Clearly (although I’m old) I wasn’t around during the war and Ireland was (notionally) neutral during WWII, so I shouldn’t have a huge connection to any sort of commemoration service.

And yet…

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Image: telegraph.co.uk

I watched a special programme aired by the BBC over the weekend in which a man who is now eighty-eight years old returned to the beaches of Normandy where, as an eighteen-year-old, he had landed with his compatriots in an attempt to liberate German-occupied France. He described his journey toward the beach, and how the fear of what awaited them was almost outweighed by the seasickness caused by the rough waters; he relived the feeling of the flat-bottomed vessel making landfall and the knowledge that nothing but his own speed and agility would save him as he raced up the beach toward the German lines, with bullets zipping – like ‘a load of birds singing’ – past his head.

He recalled picking up the bodies of his fallen comrades once the battle was over, boys of seventeen and eighteen years of age. ‘They never had a life,’ he said, gazing around the beach, and he wept, remembering his friends, boys he had trained and fought and laughed with, all of whom gave their lives in order that future generations might be free. I wept too, because there was something so deeply moving about a man of such age and experience demonstrating how the pain of war never truly leaves you, and how the memories of what you experience during a time like that are always there, just beneath the surface.

It also made me think about the terrible loss of life, and the unimaginable sacrifice offered up by so many hundreds of thousands, without which none of us would be living the life we have.

It’s such an easy thing to forget, the suffering of generations gone before us. I often wonder whether the world we have created is something that a fallen soldier from the Great War or the Second World War would be proud of. ‘Yes – this was worth dying for. This world is the perfect Utopia we dreamt of as we crawled through the muck of the trenches or fought hand to hand in the villages of France.’ Is this what a soldier would say if it was possible to bring him back for long enough to take a look around? I’m not so sure.

I wish there was no need for war, and I certainly wish humanity would stop fighting and killing one another over things like natural resources and money. Fighting for freedom and liberty, the right to live without the burden of tyranny, fighting to save your country from the oppression of an aggressor – that, I can do my best to understand. Without wishing to malign any country’s serving military, I nevertheless have to say that I think some of the wars being fought in our modern world are a lot harder to comprehend. Then, the average soldier has very little to do with the causes behind a war – he or she simply does their duty, and to the best of their ability.

Having said that, any man or woman who gives their all in the service of their country deserves to be respected and remembered, and perhaps it’s my innate pacifism that makes me so upset and sorrowful each Remembrance Day.

My thoughts are also with all those thousands of people killed, injured and left destitute by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. It makes me very sad, and angry, that it’s almost always the people who have the least who suffer the most during natural disasters, and I can’t help but think that climate change – which is, almost always, nothing to do with the people who suffer as a result of it – has a role to play in the terrible weather events of the last few years.

All in all, it’s a time for reflection and togetherness, and an opportunity to honour the memory of the war dead – who fought for what we now have – by helping one another, and doing our best to create a world they would be proud of.

Try to spread a little kindness today, in whatever way you can.

Image: monastery.com

Image: monastery.com