Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Review: Stay Where You Are And Then Leave by John Boyne

The day the First World War broke out, Alfie Summerfield's father promised he wouldn't go away to fight - but he broke that promise the following day. Four years later, Alfie doesn't know where his father might be, other than that he's away on a special, secret mission.

Then, while shining shoes at King's Cross Station, Alfie unexpectedly sees his father's name - on a sheaf of papers belonging to a military doctor. Bewildered and confused, Alfie realises his father is in a hospital close by - a hospital treating soldiers with an unusual condition. Alfie is determined to rescue his father from this strange, unnerving place . . .

Stay Where You Are And Then Leave tells the story of Alfie, a boy whose fifth birthday coincided with the announcement of Britain going to war with Germany in July 1914. That night Alfie's dad makes a promise to his mother than he will not go away to fight, a promise that last less than 24 hours. Four years on and people are still saying the war will be over by Christmas, exactly as they have been stating in each of the previous years. The letters from his father have stopped arriving and Alfie's mother has told him that his father is not able to write as he is on a top secret mission. Alfie fears the worst and wishes that his mother or grandmother or someone would be honest with him.

Unbeknownst to his mother Alfie has taken to skipping school several days a week in order to help supplement her meagre earnings by shining shoes at King's Cross Station. One day, whilst shining the shoes of a doctor, said doctor's papers go flying and as Alfie aids in their retrieval he spots his father's name and serial number on one of the sheets, with the name of a Suffolk hospital inscribed at the top. So sets in motion a series of events that sees Alfie heading off to Sussex in the hope of finding his father and bringing him home, whatever the consequences.

I read a lot of books. I always have, but since I started blogging I must read more than ever. Due to the volume I read some books are read, enjoyed and quickly forgotten (I also have a terrible memory). Some books linger in the memory for a little longer, for whatever reason. And then there are a small minority of books that take hold of your mind or your heart (or both) and simply refuse to let go. I read Stay Where You Are And Then Leave a month ago and even now it is still pops into my thoughts at least once a day, and John Boyne is another on the list of auto-reads.

After a couple of rather brilliant forays into the world of fantasy (Noah Barleywater Runs Away and The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket), John Boyne has returned to the historical children's novel, the genre that pretty much made him a global name following the publication of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Much as I loved The Boy... the next two books really struck a chord with me and now Stay Where You Are has done exactly the same. I can't ell you how much I loved this book, and it is certainly a(nother) contender for my Book of the Year. 

Next year is the centennial anniversary of the start of The Great War and so this is a timely release for a book that deals with one of the less spoken about horrors of that tragic time: shell shock. At the time, the condition was not at all understood and sadly many men were branded as cowards for their reaction to the horrors they experienced in the trenches, and in some case soldiers were executed for desertion that is these days thought to have been caused by shell shock. John Boyne writes about this mental illness incredibly well: he refuses to shy away from descriptions that might unnerve some readers, but he somehow also manages to add a tenderness to these scenes that will bring tears to the eyes of many readers, and his use of Alfie as his main character is the key to this.

This book is much more than just a story about a victim of shell shock though. I'm not expert historian, but for me John Boyne really brought alive the everyday travails of the people left at home. There is the conscientious objector who lives across the road from Alfie, and the abuse he experiences from people he had thought were friends for his supposed cowardice (and done so in a much better way than the truly atrocious Chickens that is on Sky One at the moment). There is also a glimpse at the way certain foreign nationals were treated as war broke out: Alfie's best friend Kalena Janáček, a girl born in the very street where the two kids live, and her Czech father are branded as spies by ignorant neighbours and then labelled Persons of special interest by the powers that be, shoved in the back of a van and taken away into custody.

As with all of his previous books for children John Boyne also manages to imbue this one with subtle humour, although he never makes light of the seriousness of the book's main themes. There is one scene in particular which really made me chuckle, as Alfie finds himself shining the shoes of the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, chatting away to him with no clue at all as to who he is talking to. As readers we are also only able to guess as to who the man might be, our suspicions only confirmed when an unexpected person arrives on the scene.

As with many historical books, part of the real power of this story is in the subtly-included detail of the everyday lives of the characters and readers will find it very easy to empathise with all of them. There are many elements that make perfect discussion material for both English and History lessons. At school some of our Year 8s have just started studying The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in their English lessons, and I would not be surprised if this book became a study text for schools in the future. In fact, this is the kind of book that I think will grow to be loved by millions, and will one day deservedly surpass the huge success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Stay Where You Are And Then Leave is scheduled to be published on 26th September, and is a perfect read for children as young as 9/10, teens and right up to adults (okay... pretty much everyone, but do be prepared to find it lingering in your thoughts for weeks afterwards). My thanks go to the lovely people at Random House for sending me a copy to read.

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