Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War #review

51splwrbhml._sx328_bo1,204,203,200_‘More than one hundred years ago, in the time of gas lamps and candlelight, when shops had wooden counters and the streets were full of horses,’ McKay’s utterly wonderful Clarry is born. Her name, her mother whispers, means ‘Clear and bright,’ and so she is. Despite a difficult start, Clarry’s childhood is, on the whole and because of her personality, a happy one, particularly when she is heading down to visit her grandparents in Cornwall each summer with her older brother, Peter. This isn’t a bucolic, Blyton-esque jaunt, however – the rather brusque Peter is copiously sick whenever he travels and it is Clarry’s job to produce the sick bags just at the right moment because, ‘… the bags had to be invisible until the moment of crisis. It was fatal for Peter to catch sight of them a second too soon.

But waiting for them in Cornwall is Rupert, their older and much admired cousin. Here, the three children create memories for themselves which will endure into adulthood and shore them up for times to come. McKay doesn’t pretend childhood is easy – Rupert’s parents have left him to go off to India, Peter has to face the challenges posed by boarding school, and Clarry is largely neglected simply because she is a girl. But McKay’s skill lies in showing us the fears of childhood whilst also, because of the ever-optimistic Clarry’s responses to events, making the reader feel sure that it’ll be alright in the end.

There is little warmth in Clarry’s early life, other than the times she spends with Rupert and Peter, but I loved the marvellous Mrs Morgan, who comes to cook and clean for the family. In amongst practical tips for housekeeping and the sharing of recipes, she also shares some of her frustrations with her own upbringing. When Clarry confides that it isn’t just cooking she wants to learn, she is surprised by Mrs Morgan’s response,

‘Course it isn’t. Nor was it with me.’
‘What did you want?’
‘Blacksmithing!’
‘BLACKSMITHING?’
‘Time was, Clarry, I could have taught you to shoe a horse! My father had a forge, and there was just me and my brother, and he was much younger. And nothing did he care about it. I started off holding the horses’ heads, and then I was on the bellows, and before I finished I could shoe a horse and what do you think of that?’
‘I never knew girls could!’ said Clarry, hugely impressed.
‘Girls can do anything, but they’re hardly ever let.’

Together with some formidable school teachers later on, Mrs Morgan and Peter are instrumental in pushing Clarry on, determined that she won’t stay at home to become the unmarried daughter.

Clarry’s relationship with her difficult brother Peter, who is ‘discovered to be extremely clever, which … probably accounted for his often shocking temper,’ is explored brilliantly. Peter is as much a victim of expectations as his sister. Despite his best efforts, he is forced to attend boarding school against his will. Fortunately for all, there he meets Simon the Bony One, a gentle boy equally as unhappy in this environment, and the two become firm friends.

This is a brilliant novel which captures the challenges of life for children and young people born to see the Great War change the world around them. McKay’s writing is beautifully understated and warm, and would be an excellent way for young (and older) writers to understand to the power of the old stricture to ‘show, not tell’. I suspect this award winning coming-of-age novel will be on my ‘Best’ list at the end of the year – the fact that I started it at 1am and didn’t look at the time again for three hours shows just how immersed I was in Clarry’s world.

2 thoughts on “Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War #review

  1. Pingback: My Top Ten Reads of 2019 | Books and Wine Gums

  2. Pingback: A disrupted summer of reading | Books and Wine Gums

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