Stay Where You Are and then Leave
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This issue’s cover illustration is from Song of the Golden Hare by Jackie Morris. Thanks to Frances Lincoln for their help with this November cover.
The centenary tide of World War One books and television programmes is already rising. John Boyne’s novel is triggered by the distant trenches but focuses upon the less familiar suffering of the shell-shocked Tommies and its impact on their families. We share the perspective of Alfie, whose fifth birthday falls on the day war breaks out. His father Georgie, a London milkman, slips out of the family home in Damley Road, volunteers and, implausibly, returns fully kitted-out in khaki. Life changes for Alfie and his mother overnight – and for the close community around them. Joe Patience, born and bred in the Road, for example, becomes a conchie; the neighbour who brought him up will not speak to him. Mr Janacek and his daughter, Alfie’s best friend, Kalena, come from Prague, not Germany, but they are bundled off to internment camp on the Isle of Man for the duration.
Four years later, Alfie has heard nothing of his Dad for many months. His Mum tells him Georgie is ‘on a secret mission’. Money’s been tight with Dad away, so a couple of years earlier Alfie has ‘borrowed’ a fine shoe-cleaning box from Mr Janacek’s empty house and is earning what he can shining shoes at King’s Cross Station, numbering Lloyd George among his occasional customers. It is here that by chance – and it is quite some chance – that Alfie discovers the whereabouts of his Dad; he’s in hospital in Ipswich.
Alfie’s determination to help his shell-shocked Dad somehow or other drives the rest of the novel. The reader implicit in this text might be little older than nine year old Alfie, but given what happened to Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the actual readers may prove to be any age. This novel largely avoids the sentimentality and improbability which many found in The Boy, especially if you can accept Alfie’s intrepid independence of spirit and action. The storytelling idiom seems consciously simple, its compassionate emphasis resting upon Alfie’s emotions. Many readers will surely be moved by Alfie’s loneliness and the brutal effect of the war upon his likeable father. There are over-familiar elements in the story – white feathers, everyone smoking, women finding new selves through war work, the repeated ‘It’ll all be over by Christmas’ – but these mostly avoid the heavy clunk of a Downton cliché. There are some oddities too: ‘train station’? a five year-old boy able to spell t-u-b-e-r-c-u-l-o-s-i-s? could Alfie really spring his Dad from a military hospital with so little trouble? And at one point, a strong character from Boyne’s adult WW1 novel, The Absolutist, boards the plot, chats with Alfie throughout a rail journey, and then hops off the train and the story as quickly as she came; while the faltering recovery his father would have had to make slips by too easily off the page.
Those who rationalised The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as a fable might dismiss such quibbles. More persuasively, Boyne’s compassion and his indomitable Alfie could provide a way-in for young readers to an area of experience unfamiliar to them.