This poignant story, the first in a trilogy, follows the childhood of young Londoner Billy Wilson and his family life in the run-up to the Second World War and through its early years. Billy’s chief adversary is not so much Hitler as his spoiled, manipulative, sickly cousin Kenneth, who bullies him mercilessly, uncorrected by his own over-indulgent parents and by Billy’s mother and father, who are strangely cold and distant to their own son.
Told in close third person to reflect Billy’s world view without being limited by his own perceptions, the story provides a detailed and vivid picture of a child’s daily life and problems at this challenging time, including evacuation to the country. Lots of really precise detail bring the emotional tenor of the age, as well as the practicalities, vividly to life. I found these details particularly compelling because my parents were of the same generation and origin, evacuated from London suburbia to Wales and the Cotswolds (though thankfully with their mothers, unlike Billy, who were both kind and caring ladies, and not like poor Billy’s at all).
The style of the narrative, particularly early on, during Billy’s younger years, uses vocabulary that a child would use, to build sympathy for Billy and understanding of his perspective. At times I wanted to slap Billy’s parents and uncle and aunt, who these days would be accused of mental cruelty, and I was very relieved when he found kinder mentors in various places (won’t go into details for fear of spoiling the plot). I am hoping his dreadful cousin gets his come-uppance in the later books in the trilogy, or that at least there is a truce between them.
As perhaps you can tell from that last paragraph, I was very much drawn into this book by the effective characterisation and sense of place, both symptoms of great storytelling.
Recommended for anyone interested in the social impact of World War II on ordinary people and in family sagas.