My run of children’s fiction reviews continues on The Paper Alchemist today – with even more historical fiction!
Author(s): Hilary McKay
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
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Clarry Penrose and her brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall. They stay with their grandparents and run wild with their older cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September, with boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and for Clarry, a dull return to an echoing old house and a father who doesn’t want her.
Even worse, the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers start to slip away from them. Can Clarry’s family survive this fearful war? And will any of them be the same when it’s over?
Modern publishing is obsessed with the next big thing; with flash-in-the-pan fads and blockbuster bestsellers and instant Hollywood movie deals. There is such pressure on the make-or-break debut, particularly in YA, that there hardly seems room for thinking about writers as people who may continue to exist beyond that first nerve-wracking publication day. One wonders if the likes of Sir Michael Morpurgo, who wrote seventeen books before War Horse, his most famous title, or Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote dozens of books before The Story of Tracy Beaker, would be given the time to build a long-term career if they were to debut in today’s publishing landscape.
Hilary McKay certainly got out well from the starting blocks – her first novel The Exiles won the 1992 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize – and has nudged awards from time to time since – in 2002 the first of the brilliant Casson family books, Saffy’s Angel, won the Costa, then known as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. Her books have meant a great deal to many readers. And, in a testament to writers being allowed to hone their craft, it is in her third decade of writing for children that she has created one of her best books to date.
The Skylarks’ War is an old-fashioned tale, written in distinctive, almost idiosyncratic prose. It is a coming-of-age story in the truest sense of the word. It follows an extended family of characters for years, from childhood to early adulthood, like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. Cheerful, bright Clarry is at its heart. There’s also bad-tempered, slowly-flourishing brother Pete, grammar school girl turned nurse Vanessa, and loyal, ungainly Simon. And then there’s Clarry’s favourite, her charismatic, reckless cousin Rupert (“Having endured the desertion of his parents, a Cornish winter when a gale was so strong it blew him off the cliff, a Christmas of scarlet fever and innumerable years in compulsory education, he was assumed to be indestructible and allowed to do what he liked”).
As historical fiction, The Skylarks’ War straddles a complex era in which the Edwardian period gave way to the First World War, and in which the young were faced with changes and horrors once unimaginable to their firmly Victorian parents and grandparents. It grapples with ideas of education, ambition, patriotism, trauma, and vibrant hope. I particularly liked the intense exploration of family dynamics and the use of letters. There are a few inelegant touches – an instance of (a heavily implied) ‘bury your gays’ trope, some Irish stereotypes – but on the whole it is a vivid, detailed, unputdownable novel. The book’s most astonishing achievement is its multifariousness: it has moments of appalling devastation and breathless high spirits, no-nonsense practicality and emerging aspiration, frosty distance and, finally, joyful warmth.
Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War is multi-faceted, vivid and gut-wrenching. A historical novel reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers.