Sunday 22 April 2018

Book review: Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

Boyne finds fresh hope amid carnage of the trenches

Sarah Webb

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave John Boyne Doubleday, €14.70, pbk, 256 pages, Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

John Boyne is a household name thanks to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, one of the most popular World War II novels ever written.

His new novel for children, Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, is set in London during World War I and is told through the eyes of a young boy called Alfie Summerfield. The book opens on Alfie's fifth birthday – July 28, 1914 – the day the war broke out.

From the very first page, Boyne's characters seem so real that you feel you know them personally: Alfie himself, a wonderfully smart and caring boy; Margie Summerfield, Alfie's stoic but loving mum; Joe Patience who is a 'conchie' or conscientious objector; Granny Summerfield, who sees off a local bully who has been beating his wife and children; and Old Bill Hemperton, 'the Australian', are all beautifully drawn.

Four years after his father Georgie enlists, nine-year-old Alfie decides to help his mum pay the bills by becoming a shoe shine boy at King's Cross train station. Here he polishes the leather of many interesting people including the prime minister, Lloyd George.

When a doctor asks Alfie to shine his shoes, the man's papers blow on to the floor and Alfie spots his own father's name on one of the sheets. It seems Georgie is not in France fighting the war after all, as Alfie has been told.

So Alfie heads off on a brave mission to find his father at a hospital for soldiers with severe shell shock. The scenes in this hospital are truly harrowing, but Boyne handles the chapters with honesty, compassion and humanity.

Throughout the book it is clear that Boyne is passionate about his research. Every chapter is dotted with detail – from the sweets that Alfie and his father love best (apple drops), to the songs and day-to-day household pre-occupations of the time – privies, darning and making do.

The novel does not gloss over the hardships that Alfie's family have to face – his mum trains as a nurse and takes in sewing to make ends meet; his best friend, Kalena Janacek, and her father are interned on the Isle of Man for being Austrian; Joe Patience is beaten for being a conchie; and the scenes concerning his father's shell shock are so distressing they had me in tears. But Alfie never gives up hope and there is always the sense that due to their strength and resourcefulness, he and his family will come through the terrible times.

This hope is what makes Alfie's story such an uplifting read. It is a book to be savoured and shared and I would highly recommended it for older children or for adult readers who still believe in the power of hope.

Sarah Webb's latest book for children is Ask Amy Green: Wedding Belles.

Irish Independent

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