‘When Frankie lets you put your hand Down There, which soon she will surely do, what will you do with it? Show your workings.’ It’s 1962, and a hot summer during the Cold War. Clem is a working-class boy from a council estate whose deepening relationship with Frankie, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, must be kept secret, or it will blow both their worlds apart. Meanwhile, President Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khruschev are shaping up to do just that: with nuclear warheads. Soon, the reverberations of the Cuban Missile crisis reach even rural Norfolk, where the sound of wingéd chariots hurrying near has devastating consequences for Clem and Frankie.
How do I admire this breathtakingly intricate novel? Let me count the ways. There’s its beautiful, bittersweet evocation of rural adolescence in 1962, so sensually done that you can almost hear the fizzing hormones. There’s its sheer scope – Google Earth in a novel – as we zoom out from the North Norfolk strawberry fields to land in the testosterone-fuelled tensions of JFK’s cabinet room and the humid jungles of Cuba and the Bay of Pigs. There are its gloriously imagined characters: both the older ones who fold inside themselves the disappointments and deprivations of wartime; and the younger ones, starting to taste freedoms and opportunities of which their parents can scarcely conceive. And there’s the fact that the whole is utterly untainted by blinkering nostalgia. ‘Nostalgics want to cuddle the past like a puppy,’ says Clem. ‘But the past has bloody teeth and bad breath.’
Just one warning siren: the ending of this novel is one of those where you find yourself frantically turning the pages to check that it really is the end. And I’m not sure how much I liked being left like that.
But my admiration for this novel still soars. Above all for its spine-tingling, loin-buzzing, butterflies-in-the-stomach evocation of what it feels like to be young, that extraordinary time of having life, love, sex and the whole oyster of the world in front of you. And so then what a blow it is when you realise that world is also a dangerous one, run by stupid people who might just cause mass destruction to your plans.