In only her second novel Lesley Parr comes over as a born writer but with still some way to go as an author. Her sentences, shorn of unnecessary decoration, are finely balanced, following their own natural rhythm. She is good at place and character, and unafraid to take on big topics, in this case soldiers suffering from shell-shock after the First World War. All that’s left for her therefore is an ability to think up a good story, and this account of Natty, a 12-year-old girl forced to change from one Welsh village for another, starts well. If it doesn’t quite make it to the end, there is still plenty to enjoy in between.
Natty lives alone with her mother, whose militancy over factory working conditions is the reason they lose their home and have to move in with kindly relatives. Her new school has a vicious headmaster, universally known as Mad Dog. While some nearby Educational Boards provide free meals, this one does not, and Natty has to witness pupils too hungry to concentrate getting caned across the palm of the hand. Her recourse is a nearby convalescent home for injured soldiers, and she makes particular friends with one who has lost all memory. At school, meanwhile, pupils pushed too far finally organise a strike, with Natty who up to now has been embarrassed by any show of militancy happy to join in.
Things eventually work out, but at this late stage over-contrived happy endings start trumping the everyday reality previously so well described. Her soldier’s memories begin coming back and Natty and her mother find a new bond together. The school strike is shown to peter out, as it had to, but readers are never told whether Mad Dog stays as horrible as he was before or even worse. An otherwise compelling storybook villain surely deserves more follow-up than that. But these caveats apart, this is still good writing from an exciting new talent. Let her third novel come soon!