Here is the best piece of YA historical fiction that I have come across in a long while.
There are a good number of fine children's novels set on the UK 'home front' during WWII, most involving evacuation, but this piece of teen fiction, capturing brilliantly the experience of a young person actually living through the Blitz in London is a very exciting new find.
WWII in The Tower
A inspired element of this writer's approach is setting most of the novel's action in and around the Tower of London. Anna, initially a13 year-old, is moved to live within its ancient walls, with her uncle, one of the Yeoman Warders, after both her parents have been (apparently) killed. Coinciding with the end of the 'phoney war' and the beginning of Hitler's Blitzkrieg, her disrupted life also becomes wrapped up with looking after The Tower ravens. The central role of 'Ravenmaster' is initially her uncle's, but gradually passes to her. The presence of The Tower itself, its gloomy stones a repository of England's history, albeit a dark as well as an enduring one, makes a powerful symbol as well as a setting. Even though it does not protect Anna from the horrors and heartaches of the war, it becomes an emotional home, just as the ravens, in legend symbols of the nation's security, become her obsession as well as her responsibility. It is a truly inspired combination of location and events on the part of John Owen Theobald, and a deeply enthralling one for the reader.
Presenting the past
It has become very trendy recently for authors to choose to narrate their fiction in the first person present tense. I have to say that, in general, this particular fad is much to be regretted. More often than not it comes across as a writerly affectation that alienates (at least this particular reader) far more than it involves in the moment of action. I have encountered any number of books recently that had perfectly good storylines but were sadly marred by this often limited and limiting viewpoint. It too often amounts to an abnegation of control over the perspectives that Philip Pullman likens to a director's choices of camera position in movies*.
However, there are just a few instances where, in the hands of a skilled writer, using it for very specific purpose rather than simply voguish narration, this device works brilliantly. One such instance is in Sally Green's Half Bad books; another is here. And, although these books are very different, I think the reason for the success is much the same in both these cases. Here, as with Nathan Byrn, it is not simply a question of Anna narrating a story in the present, it is that what is going on in her head is the story. These Dark Wings is not simply about the war, or The Tower, it is about Anna's experience of these things. Using the style and approach he does, John Owen Theobald perfectly captures those experiences and allows the reader to share them intimately. What are presented are almost like recollections so vividly conjured that they are relived, moment by moment. So Anna's narration is often somewhat fragmented, even confused, especially when she is at her youngest and her life at its most insecure. It is subjective. We do not know everything that happens, what we know is what happens to Anna, what matters to Anna, what effects Anna. But that we know, see and feel, in vivid detail. It is quite wonderfully done and gives the novel a spellbinding perspective of considerable depth. Through air raids and rationing, through sleeping in The Bloody Tower and through relationships with The Tower's other inhabitants, we experience growing up along with Anna. And all this is spiced with disturbing secrets about her parents, potential spies, strange friends, and, of course, the ravens. The writer's camera positioning may be limited, but the detailed reactions thus caught are revalatory
The second book of the series does not have quite the same intensity of focus as the first - but there are compensations. A second voice is introduced, that of Anna's 'friend' from The Tower, Timothy Squire. His internal dialogue is now interleaved with Anna's own to broaden the story's viewpoint, as well as its action. Much of the latter also moves beyond The Tower itself, although it remains anchored by it. The two protagonists move into a phase of 'doing their bit' in the conflict (each still at a ridiculously young age) and the scenarios they experience become grippingly thrilling as well as devastatingly terrifying. We still see it all through the direct experience of these two, and this writer's device continues to work with stunning effectiveness, bringing searing vividness to quite horrendous, heartbreaking, scenes.
Whilst Timothy Squire (almost) trains as a sapper, Anna moves towards flying planes for the 'ATA'. Whether the author knows about WWII planes as intimately as he does The Tower of London, or whether his research of both is simply meticulous, his descriptions of flying and learning to fly rival those of the classics of Antoine De Saint-Exupery; they are viscerally exciting, quite breathtaking This book is in part a teenage romance, spiked with all the bear traps of inexperience. But it is far more too. It sensitively explores the first hand experience of living through war in ways that far outstrip many other books on the same topic. Here, too, the effect that the war had on the roles and self image of both young women and young men is broached in an intensely pertinent and affecting way. It is a work of great humanity.
Those who have read this blog before will know that my principal penchant is for fantasy, and I tend to like even my history with a touch of fantasy too. But I found this 'realistic' imagining of growing up through WWII totally compelling. I am therefore looking forward eagerly to the publication of the final part of the trilogy, which I understand is due very shortly.
I hope many young writers and budding writers read Philip Pullman's Dæmon Voices. Then perhaps they will be dissuaded from their current infatuation with present tense narration.