Emerging from an alley-way was a man I did not recognise. He was tall, with slicked-back hair, wearing a mackintosh belted tightly around his middle. He looked wet through, like he’d waded through a river to get here. Sukie went right up to him and shook his hand. I stopped in the middle of the street, confused.
What was she doing?
They were talking now. It didn’t look like a normal chat about the weather either, because their heads were close together and the man kept glancing behind him. He gave Sukie a piece of paper, before taking her hand and squeezing it in both of his.
Was she out here searching for us then? It didn’t look that way.
All I knew was she’d left us in a hurry, and this was where she’d gone – not to the toilet or the tube station, but to meet a young. It was probably why she’d got glammed up in the first place. I didn’t know whether to laugh or burst into tears.
‘Sukie!’ I yelled.
She spun around. A strange shadow flitted over her face. As the young man shrank back into the shadows, Sukie hobbled towards me, shaking her head.
Olive cannot accept her father might have died in the war. ‘Missing in action’ means ‘missing’. With the Second World War rife in Europe, plenty of people have become separated from their families. With her mother stressed, and a little brother to look after, Olive does not know where she would be without her big sister Sukie. Sukie is the pretty one, the life and soul of the party, and she always knows what to do.
Except Sukie is up to something. On the night of the air raid, Olive sees Sukie take a piece of paper from a stranger. Then the bomb explodes.
Olive wakes up in hospital. Sukie disappeared in the blast. Mum doesn’t seem to think Sukie is dead, but she won’t explain why. Olive and Cliff are evacuated to Devon, alongside irascible Esther Jenkins. Something is afoot in Budmouth Point, and the coded message Sukie took the night of the blast appears to link her to this sleepy village in Devon.
Olive wants the truth. She wants to find her sister. She wants to know why Esther Jenkins hasn’t got a nice word to say.
Budmouth is a place of small-town politics. You can live there nearly all your life and still be an incomer. It is a place where people can’t mind their own business – usually a minor annoyance, but as Olive is constantly warned, in times of War, careless talk costs lives. It makes an excellent setting for a story which deals with prejudice, and for secretive missions. Whatever is going on, the stakes are always there. The likelihood is, your business will be found out.
I love the characters. Carroll uses description sparingly. Each character represents a trait – Cliff, the playful child. Queenie, in her oversized jumpers and spectacles, is industrious, and refuses to be feminine. The buildings in Budmouth are described the same way. By the end of the novel, they feel as much like characters as Budmouth’s human population. My favourite is the lighthouse, which works as a metaphor for lost people searching for light and shelter.
The main theme is prejudice and displacement. The discussion about people forced from their homes is as relevant today as it was during WW2, when the story is set. The themes come out of the story in manageable chunks. For the most part, the story is a young girl’s search for the truth. The situation is always there under the surface.
Carroll captures beautifully a child’s perspective of the war. There is never a time she is not aware something terribly wrong is going on, but she unravels it at her own pace. This reminded me of something Morpurgo said in April, when he spoke in conjunction with Seven Stories. He talked about how children now are exposed to vastly more information than children during the Second World War. Truth, lies and opinion are a click away. Olive’s information about the Holocaust comes in drips, starting with a newsreel at the cinema. It is easy for adults to gloss over what is happening, especially with soundbites about ‘careless talk’ at their disposal.
Olive’s relationship with Esther is both a subplot and key to the Olive’s character development. Throughout the novel, from Esther to Queenie to Ephraim the lighthouse keeper, Olive learns that you may not know the secrets a person is carrying.
This may be my favourite of Carroll’s novels. Given how much I love In Darkling Wood, with its enchanted wood, that takes saying. She is the Penelope Lively of our time. Her work is rooted in history. As with Lively’s work, Carroll’s interest in the past comes out differently in each of her works. Her work is versatile, but always well-constructed. By the end of each novel, I feel a part of its world … or perhaps those worlds feel like a little part of me? Roll on The Lost Boy.