Title: Stay Where You Are And Then Leave
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: DoubleDay Children's Books
Source: ARC via Netgalley
Buy it: Here
Alfie Summerfield is five when World War One is declared. He watches his father leave behind the simple life of a milk man for the life of a soldier in the trenches - a hero's life full of adventure! But Alfie soon stops getting letters from his dad, and, four years later, Alfie's mum is still telling him that his dad has been sent on a "secret mission". While shining shoes at Kings Cross Station to help pay the bills, Alfie comes across some information that convinces him that his dad may not even be in France at all... Alfie has a mission of his own.
I'd bet you would be hard pushed to find someone familiar with books who has not at least heard of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne's hugely successful WW2 novel for children. However, would as many people know of Stay Where You Are And Then Leave? This book is set during World War One, and is, in my opinion, worthy of just as much recognition as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
The book introduces us to five year old Alfie; sweet-shop lover, aspiring milk man and best friend to Kalena Janáček - who is absolutely going to be the next Prime Minister, despite the fact that women can't even vote. However, everything Alfie knows is about to change. War is declared and the men of the street are starting to enlist. When Alfie's dad, Georgie, strolls into the living room one day, head to toe in soldier regalia, Alfie watches his mum fall apart and his grandmother announce that they're all "done for". He also watches Kalena and her Czech family forcibly removed from their homes - not even allowed to collect their possessions.
Emotions are laid bare in John Boynes writing and I think this is at the heart of why this book is so wonderful. Sensitively presenting themes such as women's rights, racism, conscientious objectors, cowardice, domestic abuse and mental illness comes like breathing to Boyne, who so naturally allows an audience of any age understand well the effects of what is happening, and what it all means. One of my absolute favourite parts of this book was when Alfie's neighbour explains his "conchie" nickname to him. I felt so much for them that I could feel my heart reaching out into the book.
Not only are emotions conveyed so well, but characters leap off of the page too. Some are only in the book for 10 or so pages, but they are fully formed and original. Just the language each character uses could let you know who they are in a single sentence! Politicians, doctors, suffragettes and soldiers walk in and out of the chapters so clearly it is often as if you are watching this book, not reading it!
The crux of this book, though, lies in its handling of shellshock. Post-traumatic stress was virtually unheard of at this period of time, and reading about the men coming back from war mentally traumatised, with no-one able to help them, was heartbreaking. Seeing them labelled cowards was even worse. Thank goodness for the growing understanding of mental illness today. I only hope we continue to understand and release the stigma surrounding many mental illnesses in years to come.
A simple story, beautifully told. John Boyne is not afraid to present deep and complex themes in his children's/YA books, and does so in a way that is relate-able, and easy to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed Stay Where You Are And Then Leave for its characters, its honesty and its fearlessness.