Edward VII is on the throne and it is ‘the time of gas lamps and candlelight.’ Motherless Clarry and Peter Penrose are being raised by an austere and indifferent father, freedom coming but once a year, in the form of idyllic summers spent roaming the Cornish coast with their beloved cousin Rupert. Little do they know that life is about to change irrevocably, as war looms on the horizon, poised to steal their youth and innocence. The Skylark’s War by Hilary McKay has just scooped the Costa Children’s Book Award 2018. A family saga of immense scope, it’s a worthy winner indeed.
We all know this Edwardian setting, a time of pipe smoking and postal orders, steam trains and housemaids. And, of course, boarding school. To avoid this awful fate, the mercurial Peter literally jumps off a moving train, the resultant injuries blighting his life. Only the reader, aware of impending war, can understand the personal implications of his actions.
In true Edwardian fashion, Clarry too is constrained by tradition. A clever girl, education is considered wasted on her. Charismatic cousin Rupert magics away the siblings’ frustrations, his golden charms making him the centre of every summer, but war lures him to the Western front, and the darkest part of this epic story.
What an impressive writer Hilary McKay is. I loved the passages set on the Western Front, and the depiction of the battle line as ‘…the shape of a long, lopsided smile…a greedy, unreasonable smile, considering how very, very well it was fed.’ It is a place of sensory overload, the stink of tinned beef, barbed wire jangling in the wind.
Back on the home front, fear stalks every family. What will become of the skylark kids of those Cornish summers?
Warmly characterised and full of insight on Clarry and Peter’s time and place in history, as well as the impact of war on that generation, this ambitious novel is sure to become a modern classic. A stunning read.
The Skylark’s War by Hilary McKay is published by Macmillan, 320 pages.