Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Stay Where You Are and the Leave, by John Boyne

This is the third book of John Boyne’s that I’ve read (the first two being The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brockett), and the first thing that comes to mind is what a marvelously accomplished author he is because each of those three have been entirely different from one another.

Stay Where You Are and then Leave is the story of Alfie and his dad. Everything changes on Alfie’s fifth birthday: 28 July, 1914; the day that World War One began. Well, technically everything changes the day after Alfie’s fifth birthday – because that’s the day his dad, Georgie, comes home in a soldier’s uniform. Since then there have been no more birthday parties, no more playing in the street with his best friend Kalena. Now his mum works as a nurse and does laundry and mending for a posh woman over the way. And Alfie, nine years old now, shines shoes – secretly, mind (his mother doesn’t know) – at Kings Cross Station to help put pennies in his mum’s purse.

At first his dad wrote all the time, cheery letters about his training, but then they started talking about terrible things and Alfie’s mum, Margie, stopped reading them to Alfie. And now there aren’t any letters at all – Margie keeps telling Alfie it’s because his dad is on a secret mission and he can’t write. But then, when he’s cleaning shoes at the station one day, his client drops a sheaf of papers. Helping him pick them up Alfie, spots the magic name and number: Summerfield, George. Serial no.: 14278. At the top of the paper it reads: East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital.

And so Alfie hatches a plan: first, to go to the hospital and find his dad. Second, to bring Georgie home. But while Georgie doesn’t look like he’s injured, he’s not dad as Alfie remembers him, and he keeps saying things that don’t make any sense, like “Stay where you are and then leave. Stay where you are and then leave”. Nonetheless, he’s sure that if he can just bring him home, Georgie will be the same again. But what happens if the plan goes wrong?

This is heartrending reminder of the tragedies and intricacies of the First World War, beautifully and deftly written. From the “conchie” who lives down the street, the disappearance of Alfie’s best friend and her Czech-born father, the struggles of the hospital staff to get shell shock recognized as a genuine illness rather than mere cowardice, the snippets of trench life in Georgie’s letters, Boyne quietly builds a picture of the upheavals, the rights and the wrongs and the greys of “the war to end all wars.” Alfie doesn’t always fully understand the conversations he hears – like what “conchie” or “shell shock” means – but Boyne explains them simply and carefully for readers, either directly or through the development of his story.

And then there’s the general state of the world at this time, regardless of the war itself: the food provided for Alfie’s party includes stewed tripe, cold tongue and jellied eels (luxuries for the Summerfield family); Alfie has to cut up newspaper squares for use in the lavatory at the bottom of the garden; milk is delivered by horse and cart, sweets sold from glass jars at the shop on the corner. It’s an entirely different world from today in a million and one ways. This was a world set in its ways, a world on the verge of massive an unimaginable upheaval. A world almost as innocent as Alfie.  As a 21st century girl, it’s sad and fascinating and intriguing to think of what it must have been like to live through this amazing yet utterly tragic period of time, of the consequences and the horror that everyone had to live with for all their days afterward.

Boyne encompasses all of this, somehow, in a simple story about a boy and his love for his father. For, although it’s a story about a war, a story about a white feather and about a train journey and about a secret, ultimately it is a story about love, and how it tears us apart and ties us together.

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