Book Review : The Skylarks’ War

Author: Hilary McKay

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Book

Publication date: 20 September. 2018

Book length: 320 pages

Format: Paperback

Language: English

Synopsis:

Shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award 2018. Clarry and her older brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall, staying with their grandparents and running free with their charismatic cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September – boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and a boring life for Clarry at home with her absent father, as the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers are finally slipping away from them. Can their family survive this fearful war?The Skylarks’ War is a beautiful story following the loves and losses of a family growing up against the harsh backdrop of World War 1, from the award-winning Hilary McKay.

Rating: 5/5

Review:

Mostly known for her children’s books, British writer Hilary McKay has set forward a completely, intriguingly heartwarming work, last year, marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. The Skylarks’ War is based primarily on a tolerably cold, motherless house in Plymouth. The house’s “father” was Mr. Penrose who was not much fond of children, including that of his own and with the birth of his second child, Clarry followed by his wife, Janey’s death only three days later, he discards the responsibilities of parenthood of both his newborn daughter and three year old son, Peter on the hands of their Grandmother. The woman “already had one unrequested child living with her, her not-quite-seven-year-old grandson Rupert, whose parents were in India.” Leaving her husband to look after the boy in their home in Cornwall, she found it completely uncalled for and tiring, the very fact that even after her children had grown up enough to have married and have children themselves, were incapable of looking after their own families forcing their old aged parents to waste away their life long struggle for a leisured retirement. The story slowly and gradually develops from there to the growing up of the three children under the blanket of their wanton summer days in Cornwall. With time and breakout of war all there lives undergo tremendous change with Rupert joining the army, Clarry finding education for women to be necessary and fighting hard against her father’s will go get admitted into Oxford University. Peter’s first and forever friend from boarding school, Simon, gradually starts filling in the empty spaces in Clarry’s aloneness in her house and later she becomes friends for life with Simon’s sister Venessa, who leaves school to learn medicine in order to aid in the War. Suddenly Simon, unannounced, joins the army as well. Why? Clarry wonders. He was never meant for war. With everything and everyone going out her reach, Clarry’s world comes crashing down when she one day receives a telegram from the War titled to the family of Rupert, “Missing. Presumed dead.” But she is not one to lose hope. She sets out to look for him. Where will she start? How is she even going to find a man at a time where men often died without being recognised by anyone ever. Men rot at No Man’s Land. How is she even serious about looking for him? Will she find him alive?

The storyline is extremely engrossing and emotionally charging. No one has ever escaped from hearing about the horrors of the World War, all the lives that have been lost, the bloody dance of powerful countries, claiming lives of soldiers in the assurance of honour and patriotism. The plot is well arranged with a few yet prominent imageries. The characters are wholesomely developed with perspectives of different sphere of life on their own, given that fact that the story is based on the events of Clarry’s life. The book also brings to light the journey of a girl, who from the beginning knew only to be in the kitchen or sew, into a woman of dreams and knowledge, with a desire to earn her own independence and respect.

The bird Skylark has been for long monopolised poetic idolatry–a privilege they enjoyed solely on account of it’s pre-eminence as song bird. In P.B.Shelley’s “To a Skylark”, the poem begins with –

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from Heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art”.

Shelley has converted the bird or, specifically, the bird’s song into a symbol of happiness. The singing bird is personified as a “blithe” or happy spirit in the first line of the poem. For as long as one can trace down Skylark throughout the history of literary usage, it had always been marked as the sign of hope, joy, transcendence and positivity. We see the an important appearance of skylark in Chapter 27 of the book “The Skylark’s War” with the soldiers finding it strange that they “could hear skylarks over the fields.” The soldiers found the existence of such poetic elements in between war to be highly unlikely and mishap. The very idea of the beautiful representation of poetry and innocence of childhood brought in by the skylarks confuses the patriots of land who were willing to kill and get killed in the name of patriotism and duty. But “in fact the birds had been there for centuries”. These creature are the carriers of songs. They know nothing of war, they are unaware of the horrifying shift in human advancement and policies. They had been there centuries before, they come back still today. They do not need to disrupt their lives, kill or create havoc. They have no nation to protect. Another thing created unrest between the soldiers. The very fact that the skylarks sang to every soldier “in the language of their homes” – in English, in French, in Dutches and more puzzlingly, on the other side of the trenches, they sang in German. The skylarks cannot differentiate between battling forces, they do not choose this side or that. The skylarks bring back pieces of the long left homes of the soldiers in their throats and spread out the familiarity of home everywhere. They are the parts of the men’s careless, joyous youth when there was no war, there were no killing, the men were all home, with their families, inside secure homes. It also shows the corruption of the innocence of youth through the painful journey of war. When they were supposed to enjoy their short periods of youth, soaking under the sun and listening to the songs of the Skylarks, they are here, in the fields filled with death and premonitions of many more with Skylarks approaching them, trying to fill in the very little the birds can of the remnants of youth. Also the character of Rupert highly represents that one curious skylark, who tired from being restricted, stuffed inside lifeless, meaningless pressure of education without leaving a quiet moment of leisure. He feels as if his wings have been crippled. He wishes to fly, to discover, to really go out there into the world and make something out of life. He finds this escape to be the War, at first unaware of its gruesomeness. His soft, innocent Skylark dream has been replaced by horrific massacre. His life, thoughts and feelings are all at war and there is no escape until the War itself finally ends and he keeps himself alive till the end.

It gave me immense satisfaction to be able to read the book. The way the author brought the story to an unfinished yet fulfilling ending brought blissful containment to me as a reader. The relationship between Clarry and Rupert has been so beautiful concluded that nothing else seems to have been a better ending. Throughout the story, how Clarry capably maintained her primary character of delicate curiosity and unbounded love for people she once starts to like. She seems to even find excuses to forgive her father’s irresponsible awkwardness. She keeps on fighting for what she thinks is right and does not lose faith on Rupert even after him not communicating with her for a long period of time. I look forward to reading more works of Hilary McKay in future for the only book of her’s that I have read has filled me with immense respect and gratitude for such writers who still keep alive the essence of literature.

About the author:

Hilary McKay (born 12 June 1959is a British writer of children’s books. For her first novel, The Exiles, she won the 1992 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime book award judged by a panel of British children’s writers.

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