The Skylarks War by Hilary McKay
Winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award 2018.
We follow brother and sister Clarry and Peter who exist for their summers in Cornwall at their grandparents - where they link up with their wonderfully enigmatic cousin Rupert.
We watch them grow against the harsh backdrop of the 1st world war - life has forced them all to cope and survive- their September to July’s are governed by expectations and limitations placed on them by their ‘absent’ parents.
Rupert we learn later has learnt to face life with a smile through his time at boarding school as his way to cope.
Peter’s future is set by the generations that came before; so we witness a young man unable to articulate his fear, unable to to verbally protest and instead he takes the matter into his own hands…
And for me this was one of the first moments where we see one of the children- his cousin Rupert showing such a depth of understanding of Peter’s predicament - he knows that it ‘wasn’t an accident’ and that it was a calculated desperate act. Rupert knows first hand how Peter felt and in this world of the unspoken he asks Clarry what Peter likes and they start the collection of items- and the macabre nature is perfect. Throughout the book it’s the young people who show a maturity of understanding- they offer each other support enabling them to navigate the adult world they find themselves in- their own no mans land
Hilary McKay beautifully parallels their coming of age - as each one faces their own heart truths- it is no surprise that the information about her mother comes from outside of her family - and finally she knows it wasn't her fault that her mother died
Peter the loss of his mother and the self inflicted injury
Rupert is a wonderfully appealing character seemingly robust , larger than life and such a joy for life- so we see children coping with worlds enforced upon them. He immediately knows that Simon is in danger when he joins the boarding school and offers him a ‘safe passage’ by causing a distraction…
There is a magical Christmas ‘a tree with silver paper stars and red candles and paper cones filled with sugar mice’ but full of laughter and pure joy finishing with a magical vignette where for instant the future is marked out- it acts as a wonderful island - a moment before all the madness begins- and our characters are sent off inevitably in totally different directions. Hilary McKay introduces us gradually through their inevitable involvement to how dreadful the situations really were in France…and then the pages keep turning as we career ahead
The beautiful dynamics of their friendship as they grow up and face new challenges and it’s those innocent summers of freedom that keep them all going- those intensely lived moments of childhood are what we keep close to our hearts often the simplest moments; lying in the grass, the elation of running through it, the smell, the heat of the sun on your body, the moments shared with friends are such key sensory memories they tap straight into our joy and inner warmth- they can take us to a happy place into which we can retreat when things become unbearable- or at near death moments - and maybe it is a literary fallacy but it is one i hold close to me that those last fleeting moments of breath, of existence that is where our mind will take us
I read the final few chapters on the tube travelling to a trade show. My absorption was such that the woman seated next to me caught my attention as i closed the book and asked what i’d been reading- my tears, despair, and ultimate joy were obviously audible…. x
A book for all ages to read- Peter, Ottie and my mother all loved it too.