Monday, 30 November 2015

A Brighter Fear

There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger destinies of mankind, which have lain aloof in newspapers and other neglected reading, enter like an earthquake into their own lives . . .
George Eliot, Daniel Deronda 

What is it like to live in a war zone?
Would you save yourself, if you had the chance, even if it meant abandoning your loved ones?
Would you leave your country, maybe forever, or would you take your chances and stay?

In A Brighter Fear, UKYA author Kerry Drewery imagines civilian life in a war-zone from the point-of-view of 16 year-old Lina.  As with most teenagers, Lina's life before the war is dominated by school.  As the child of educated, professional parents, Lina has devoted herself to her studies, has taken pride in her city's history as a seat of learning, and has dreamed of becoming an architect.  But when U.S. forces invade Baghdad in the spring of 2003, Lina's life becomes so narrow that it finally shrinks to the form of day-today survival.  The former realities of school, parents and friends cease to exist.

Drewery vividly describes the fear of the unknown, as the city prepares for invasion, and then the chaos and destruction which follows.  Wreckage is everywhere, as are dead bodies.  Soldiers stalk the streets in their tanks, and bombs are an ever-present threat.  Utilities are unreliable or nonexistent, as is news.  No one's home is safe. The future does not feel like something anyone can plan for or rely on anymore.

Although Drewery's story does not glorify Saddam Hussein's brutal reign -- indeed there is a subplot involving Lina's mother, who was imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with Hussein's government -- it is also clear that war always brings unintended consequences.  The Americans may have intended to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq, but in reality the chaos and confusion allows sectarian violence to flourish.  Although Lina's family are Christian, she must adopt the concealing clothing and hijab of Muslims in order to protect herself from the vigilante justice of fundamentalists. And even when her family cooperates with the American soldiers, there is a high price for that cooperation.  When Lina is presented with the chance to escape Baghdad, she has to weigh the complete unknown against the present risk -- both to herself, and someone she loves dearly.

As the debate about Syrian refugees takes place in the media, between governments, and at dinner tables, it is really worth trying to imagine war-torn lives compassionately.  Hopefully, most of us will never experience life in a war-zone, but even if we have the good fortune to escape that "earthquake" in our lives there is a chance that we may come into contact with those who haven't been so lucky.  It is nearly impossible to imagine pain when we have not experienced it for ourselves, but a powerful story may come closer than anything else to bridging that gap.  A Brighter Fear is painful to read, but only because it illuminates the kind of realities that are far more painful to experience.

A Brighter Fear and other war novels can be found at "War and Remembrance" at TRAC.
For more recommendations on books which feature refugees please read this post from the Sarah Laurence blog.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


In Flanders field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below 

John McCrae 'In Flanders Fields', Essex Farm 1915

For several weeks before Armistace Day, the cheerful red poppies associated with the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Appeal are omnipresent in England.  Every schoolchild knows that they are associated with World War I:  with 'remembrance', with honouring the dead, with supporting the armed forces.  The two minute silence is honoured all over the country, but I wonder how many young people are focusing their thoughts on sacrifices made so long ago?  For those who do not have a specific family member to remember, is there another way to make a mental and emotional connection with 'historical' events?  I would argue 'yes'.  A well-told story has the ability to powerfully concentrate the mind, and there are several recently published UKYA novels that truly do bring World War I back to life again. 

Rebecca Stevens published Valentine Joe in 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the war. Valentine Joe Strudwick was a real person; he died at Ypres at the age of 15, and was buried in the Essex Farm cemetery immortalized by John McCrae's famous poem.  In this unusual novel, a contemporary storyline is skilfully woven together with the historical one.  Rose and her Grandad are visiting Essex Farm when she spots Valentine Joe's gravestone.  Rose is still in mourning for her own father, who has recently died.  Through the device of a scrappy stray dog called Tommy, Rose manages to time-travel back to the battleground of Ypres and meet Joe.  Rose's state of mind is so attuned to grief and loss that she is able to connect directly with Joe, and in a very sweet and subtle way they each manage to heal something in the other.  History really is brought back to life in this book. 

Mary Hooper, a name particularly associated with historical fiction for young adults, has published two novels in the last 18 months which view the 'War to End All Wars' from the perspective of Poppy Pearson, a young VAD nurse.  At the beginning of the war, Poppy is working in 'service' as a parlourmaid for the de Vere family.  Poppy is intelligent and able, but social class and lack of money -- her mother has been widowed with four children -- have narrowed her options.  The war brought many unexpected social changes, particularly for women, and Poppy is able to develop useful skills, travel and mix with other social classes precisely because qualified nurses were in such demand.   Initially, Poppy is attached to a hospital in Southampton; later, in Poppy in the Field, she nurses wounded and dying men in France.  The storyline touches on how the brutality of trench warfare forced improvements and innovations in medical care -- everything from the mental illness described as 'shell shock' to experimentation in plastic surgery and prosthetics.   Throughout both novels, the broken bodies and spirits that Poppy tends to are made very real.  There is one particular scene in which Poppy has to clean up a soldier nicknamed 'Tibs' who has came straight from the battlefield. The description of Poppy cutting off Tibs' boots, and discovering an advanced case of trench foot, is not one that I will soon forget.  But having said that, the narration is far from melodramatic.  The novel has many poignant moments; but considering the source material, how could it be otherwise?
World War I changed the world in many ways, but one enduring legacy has been a change in the way war itself is viewed. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Montmaray Journals

The Montmaray Journals:
A Brief History of Montmaray (Book I)
The FitzOsbornes in Exile (Book II)
The FitzOsbornes at War (Book III)

When I was researching war novels targeted at the Young Adult audience, I came across Australian author Michelle Cooper's The Montmaray Journals -- and I suspected, quite correctly, that they would be just the sort of thing I like.  A tumultuous, dramatic time period, an eccentric family, strong female characters, action, adventure and political intrigue:  yes, please.

World War II provides an endlessly fascinating canvas for fiction, and this trilogy of novels set during the period of 1936-1944 covers far more ground than most.  This is not just a portrait; it's a vast landscape, but always with Sophia (the narrator) and her family in the foreground. If your historical knowledge is a bit sketchy, or if you were taught that World War II began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you will be particularly (and delightfully) enlightened.  

The first novel begins on a tiny island called Montmaray in the Bay of Biscay.  The Montmaravian Royal Family has been reduced to King John (who has never recovered from losing his entire regiment to World War I), his daughter Veronica (passionate about history and politics) and Toby, Sophia and Henry (Henrietta) -- their orphaned cousins.  Rebecca, the housekeeper, and her son Simon are also central to the plot.  The author has an ingenious way of involving this miniature and seemingly irrelevant kingdom in the churning political sea of the mid 1930s.  The Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe research and the League of Nations are all plot-points involving Mortmaray and its young royal family -- whilst also giving rich historical context to the events leading up to World War II.   The best bit is that Cooper is never guilty of info-dumping.  Instead, she sprinkles and folds her historical facts into a cracking good story.

There has been a strong trend for blending "historical fact and imaginative fiction" (as Cooper describes it in her Author's Note), and I am all for it.  Elizabeth Wein's brilliant Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire used the same strategy and they are amongst my favourite war novels of all time.  Like The Montmaray Journals, they are epistolary novels:  told through a series of diary entries, they create both an intimate, confiding tone and a particularly suspenseful way of shaping a story.  The other obvious similarity between these novels is the way that young women are at the forefront of the action -- not just because they narrate the story, but because they are actively engaged in their own "war" stories.  When I was an adolescent, we only had Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl -- also a wonderful book, but undeniably a more passive point of view.

Another delight of this trilogy is the way that the author references literature and poetry, often symbolically. Sophia, the narrator the story, is a passionate reader and story-teller.  Throughout the trilogy, Sophia has a book to hand.  At the beginning, when she is far more sheltered and romantically inclined, she is reading Pride and Prejudice.  As Great Britain edges into the war, she is reading Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas.  Unless you are completely unfamiliar with Dodie Smith's classic novel, it would be impossible to miss the homage to I Capture the Castle.  The FitzOsbornes in Exile begins with a deliberate echo of that famous opening line:  "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."  As the second book begins, Sophia and her family have been rescued from their crumbling castle and ensconced in their Aunt Charlotte's luxurious home in England.  "I write this sitting at an exquisite little Louis the Fifteenth secretaire in the White Drawing Room, using a gold fountain pen borrowed from the King of Montmaray and a bottle of ink provided by one of the footmen."   At the beginning of the trilogy, the parallels between Sophia and Cassandra in I Capture the Castle are so obvious that I was afraid that the novel would just be a pastiche of a beloved favourite.   Certainly the two novels share coming-of-age and first love themes, but A Brief History of Montmaray goes into quite unexpected territory -- and instead of feeling isolated in its 1930s setting, it is very much part of larger world-view.  Unlike heroines of old, Veronica and Sophia have far more to think about than the marriage plot.

In England, in November, you can see the distinctive red poppies everywhere.  We all have our own way of honouring Remembrance Day, but my recommendation is to immerse yourself in a good war novel -- or three of them, as is the case with The Montmaray Journals.

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@Barrie Summy