Tuesday 7 August 2018

THE SKYLARKS' WAR by Hilary McKay....a review by Adèle Geras and interview with the author.

When the proof of The Skylarks' War arrived in my house, I did what I always do with books: opened it at the first page and began to read. I was so overwhelmed that I photographed the page, put it up on Twitter and declared it to be an example of the perfect opening of a novel.  I'm still of that opinion, so I'm reproducing it here.

I hope very much that you can read it because it sets the tone for the rest of the book. To my mind, this is elegant and  succinct and also, most importantly, an invitation to turn the page.

Too often, a beautiful writing style can hide a dearth of plot, or a paucity of interesting and well-developed characters. Not so here. The Clarry whom we meet as she's being born on the first page carries the story through twenty years and more and so does her brother, Peter. We follow their lives, but just saying that is not enough. We see, through the prism of their stories, a whole social landscape which is changing almost before our eyes. Education is important in this book and its effect on both Clarry and Peter, in different ways, absolutely crucial.

We have small town suburban life complete with delicious domestic detail of the kind that I love finding in a book. We have school, both boarding and grammar. And we have a kind of paradise in Cornwall, where Clarry and Peter's grandparents live. It's here they meet the third main character in the book: the charismatic, gorgeous and delightful Rupert, who is, to anyone familiar with the literature of the Great War, the very embodiment of the young men, the flower of Europe, mown down in those years. He's the sort of person everyone falls in love with. This includes the reader, and also a fascinating and loveable  character called Simon, whose devotion to Rupert will be seen for the homosexual longing it is, at a time when being gay was punishable by imprisonment and a social disgrace. 

The War, when it comes, is treated in a slightly different way from what I've seen other writers do. Through Clarry, the Home Front is most important. Letters are important. What's happening in France and Belgium is only shown briefly, but Mckay has one chapter (Chapter 27) which tells us  about the War in three and a half pages...again, a model of economy and elegance. Anyone teaching this period would do well to read this chapter and use it with their classes. 

The other thing I love about this book is this: it's a family book, like  those of Noel Streatfeild or R F Delderfield. It's a book that you can all read: you, your mother, your children, your granny, your uncle, your brother...you can give to to a whole family for Christmas. Buy multiple copies and just distribute them. I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it. You will smile, and you will cry. You will rejoice and mourn with Clarry. You will recognise yourself and your friends. I hope you don't recognise your own father because Clarry and Peter's surviving parent is a monster of a very particular kind. 

I'm going to finish with a passage which can stand, I think, for the whole book. 

"Simon thought that if the only way of being in contact with someone was by words written on paper, then those words must be both worth reading and true."

The words in The Skylarks' War are exactly that. 

Below, I've asked Hilary Mckay a few questions and I'm grateful to her for answering. The photos used in this piece are all from her and I thank her for letting me use them.


1) You've written many books and different kinds of books too. This is a new departure it seems to me. Can you tell us a bit of how the idea first came to you.

The idea has been with me for a long time, five years at least, when I began to write a book called Binny in Secret (later reissued as Binny Keeps a Secret.) It was a story with a present-day plot - the Binny story - and a subplot which eventually enlightened the present-day plot...(gosh this is complicated. It was a much too complicated book) set one hundred years before. The characters in the sub-plot were the three main characters in The Skylarks' War. As soon as I began writing about Clarry, Peter and Rupert (after Rupert Brooke, who captured my fourteen-year-old heart by way of a book of poems from my mother and never quite let go of it, whatever I learned about him after that.) I knew that there was much more to them than the few thousand words I gave them. They were so alive to me. I wrote another book or two after Binny in Secret, but always the Skylarks were there, and gradually on my desk I acquired a 1911 sovereign, a book about stars and constellations, and an old Victorian key. (the photos, shown together below are Hilary's own.)

2) Did you have a certain kind of reader in mind when you began? Were you aiming it at children? It seems to me to be the epitome of a Family Book: one that all generations can read together

I wrote it for myself. Sometimes writers are advised to write for themselves, but as a children's writer, this is rarely completely possible. This was one for me, though, entirely, and for the generation who were lost and hurt a hundred years ago. The only thing childish about it is the length. Of course an intelligent child could read it but so I hope could an intelligent adult. [A bit of Hilary's text here is complimentary to me, but I'm afraid I'm including it. Adèle] You know what I mean, because your own young adult novels are just the same. I read Troy and Happy Ever A
fter at the same time as my fourteen-year- old daughter and we both loved them equally.

3) Many books about the Great War deal either with actual fighting or the home front. You do both. Was there any editorial pressure on you to beef up the fighting in any way? If there was, how did you resist it.

There was no editorial pressure on me at all, not for any part of the book. The editing was so light. It was mostly to do with chronology actually, because it covered such a long time span. I had a huge spread sheet with everyone's ages, historical events, etc running through the twenty odd years that the story covers.

4) The emotional battlefields are as devastating in their way as the real ones. In particular the father of the Penrose family is....I have no words for him....and I'm struck by how little he is condemned in the novel either by his children or by you? Do you have a particular reason to let him off the hook a bit?

Did I let him off the hook? I didn't mean to. He was an awful man. My characters knew that and so did I. I found him frightening: the thought of Clarry living with him, his utter coldness. They diminished him in the end with pity and laughter, but he was never redeemed. He remained what he was from the start. Devoid of love. Not off the hook at all!

5) 1918 was a moment when women were more and more coming to the fore in education and suffrage and so forth. Your novel seems to be a clarion call ( Clarry-on!) for education, kindness and understanding. Would you be upset or pleased if your readers took it as an 'issue' novel?

I would be delighted if readers took it as a Clarion Call...I like Clarry-on call! I am all for the girls. I found such a brilliant second-hand book when I was researching the novel, called "Somerville for Women." When I looked inside, I found it had been signed by a group of Somerville friends. One of them, Jill Brook (Lewis) says: "It can't be 40 years!" There are eight or nine signatures. So moving. We had a similar 'Eight' at St Andrew's and now at our own nearly forty years later, we say to each other: "Are you coming? I've got five of the eight...." etc.

6) Is there going to be a sequel? I feel there could be a few...a series!

I don't know. I wish I did. Maybe I could follow one of the next generation into WW2.

A brief autobiography:

I grew up in Boston, Lincolnshire, the eldest of four sisters in a very small house. My entire family read books like starving wolves eat their dinners, reading was my first great escape. The second was St Andrew's University. After a variety of jobs I settled down in Derbyshire to write books, which has just about kept the show on the bumpy road these last twenty five years or so.


Sally Prue said...

It is a wonderful opening page. It gives immediately a very welcome sense that this is a real world that won't suddenly split at the seams and let in unwanted daylight. Terrific!

Anne Booth said...

I have been lucky enough to read this book too, and I totally agree. It is wonderful.

Kate said...

This sounds really fascinating, Hilary, and I can't wait to read it. Lots of points of contact for me, knowing Boston well and now living close to Granchester ...

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Oh yes, that first page definitely hooked me. I shall certainly be reading it!

Ann Turnbull said...

It's a perfect beginning, Adele. I shall definitely be getting hold of this book soon, either by birthday, bookshop, or online... Thank you for a most enticing review.

Mary Hoffman said...

Hilary knows I love this book too.

Hilary Mckay said...

I do, Mary! Thank you! And Anne too, all of you, you have all been so kind and supportive. I am so grateful. Adele, you are a star to write about the Skylarks like this. They very nearly never saw the light of day. I can hardly believe what a kind reception they are getting. Love to all of you, H

Unknown said...

Enticing! Great review for what sounds like a great book.

Lynne Benton said...

It sounds wonderful - must go and buy it instantly! Thank you for the post, Adele.