Quoted in the bibliography as an influence, and reading almost like an homage to Testament of Youth, Hilary McKay’s latest novel The Skylarks’ War is a highly readable, beautifully imagined story of a girl coming of age during the devastation of World War I. Clarry and her older brother are largely ignored by their single parent father, but spend their summers in glorious freedom in Cornwall at their grandparents’, where wonderfully charismatic and free-spirited cousin Rupert rules the roost. But when war breaks out, family and friendships are wrenched apart, and the Skylark summers seem a thing of the distant past.
McKay has a remarkable gift for writing. Her characters are fully rounded, developed people who you want to stay with long after the last page is turned. Clarry reads like a warm hug, Rupert is exactly the heroic soldier one would fall for, and Clarry’s brother Peter is a complicated, sensitive sort – he heart-wrenchingly jumps from a moving train to avoid boarding school and damages his leg, with only the reader fully aware of the consequences of his actions, seeing as war will erupt a few years later.
Also lending heart and soul to the novel is Simon, Peter’s friend from boarding school, who gives the reader a glimpse of the social history of the piece from the knowing standpoint of a more enlightened future. Simon, as much as the reader, is patently in love with Rupert, but of course homosexuality was forbidden then.
As well as character, McKay writes with specificity, elegance and precision in her portrayal of the time, lavishing period detail, but more intelligently, rendering the emotions of the time so clearly – leaving the reader with a sense of the social history without in any way preaching. She shies away from anything too gruesome in her sparse prose about the Front, but there is enough tension and heartbreak to transport the reader to the desolation of that time and place.
McKay concentrates mostly on the home front, managing to include both the suspension of time for women left at home as they waited for news and letters, but also the occupying of that time and the growth of importance of women as they took up roles in society away from the domestic sphere, and become more visible. Above all, what marks the book is the amount of hope and courage portrayed, and the feeling that Clarry’s breathless determination and grit will prevail.
This sort of storytelling is reminiscent of those great classic novels – the gathering of the family around letters from Father in Little Women, the closeness in relationships in Noel Streatfield novels, the insight into women’s feelings in Testament of Youth.
Marking the centenary of the First World War, this is a most beautiful introduction to that time period for children, and an unforgettable classic read. One of the best children’s books this year – do not miss. For 9+ years. You can buy your copy here.