My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I remember being quite concerned when this was first announced. I think it was the title, mainly, which worried me. It felt so bald somehow; this juxtaposition of E Nesbit’s glorious (and eternal) work against the awful bluntness of World War One. And it felt bad too, because war narratives are a very specific sort of thing and when they are applied to a book you know and love, then it is difficult to come to terms with.
You don’t want the people you love to suffer, whether it’s fictional or real. You just don’t. And the thought of that, the mere thought of it, is difficult and hard to bear.
We are human. We find ourselves in others. We reflect ourselves, our souls, our wholes, out to the world and what we get back, makes us. We are made by friends and family and the knowledge that somewhere out there sleeps a Psammead, or that there’s a wardrobe which leads to Narnia. You know that. You made it happen. You read the book and so you’re part of this life, this other world, and it is part of you. Reading works both ways. Always has. Always will. You give yourself to the book and you get something back.
But here’s the awful thing. When you read, you’re culpable, in a way, for what happens. Would it have happened if you hadn’t read the book? No. Of course it wouldn’t. It’s not real. You didn’t make it happen. But what if you did? What if it’s you that pulls these characters through story and through sadness and through pain?
Five Children on the Western Front is a book that is very quietly perfect. It is subtle and shadowy and sharp, too, when it needs to be. There are moments that are heartbreaking in it. Gasping, gutwrenchingly heartbreaking. I hated this book for a while for that and then I loved it and then I hated it again.
Understand, though, what I mean by hate. Stay with me for a while.
The Psammead is back with the Pemberton family, but things are different now. The children are grown up. Life is being lived. The War is looming and it can’t be escaped. Cyril is off to fight. Robert won’t be far behind and Anthea does her part as well. The care of the Psammead is left to the youngest, the Lamb and the new arrival to the family – Edie. It is up to them, and the others when they can be around, to help the Psammead discover what’s happened to him.
I read it in a night. I cried. I cried at this awful, perfect, graceful book and what it has done to me and the story it has told. I hate it. I love it.
It is unmissable.
Oh how it has unmade me.