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When the Sky Falls

The London Blitz, a silverback gorilla, and the meaning of love

A major London railway station, 1941. The platform is a sea of parents and young evacuees bearing regulation gas masks, I.D tags, and heavy hearts. Walking against the tide is 12-year-old Joseph, an arrival as opposed to a departee, and stricken with rage rather than sorrow. In When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle, we join Joseph as he is placed under the care of the equally fiery Mrs F, the owner of a rundown local zoo. If the Luftwaffe don’t get him, her silverback gorilla might, in this phenomenal story of war and compassion.

We know that Joseph is angry with his grandmother for sending him to London. We know too that it’s been two long months since his dad ‘marched to war.’ But his mother is an unexplained absence, a dark bruise that Joseph carries through the story.

Arriving at Mrs F’s home, Joseph finds it to be as cheerless as his hostess, observing that ‘the stove was unlit, much like her heart.’ Her zoo is a similarly sorry affair. Many of the animals have been transferred to the countryside or put down before they starve to death. Joseph is tasked with caring for a motley crew of emaciated beasts, including the pride of the zoo, a silverback gorilla named Adonis.

Lonely and melancholic, Adonis shares the same sense of abandonment as the young boy, and the evolution of their friendship forms the heart of this powerful and moving novel.

Sadly resonant in our own time of Ukrainian conflict, Earle’s evocation of a war-torn cityscape is vivid and convincing. A welcome modern twist comes in the form of his portrayal of Joseph’s dyslexia. The harsh 1940’s regime of his new school doesn’t recognise Joseph’s experience of words that dance dizzily on the page. Earle puts them to rights.

Shortlisted for the Yoto Carnegie Medal 2022, and with plaudits from Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo, this novel fulfils all expectations. A triumph (keep tissues to hand!)

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle is published by Andersen Press, 320 pages.

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