Sophie McKenzie was born in London, where she still lives, and worked as a journalist and editor before concentrating full time on writing. She is the award-winning author of the thrillers Girl, Missing and Blood Ties, which won the Red House Children's Book Award in 2009. Her new thriller, The Set-Up, is the first in The Medusa Project series about a group of teens with psychic powers. Here Sophie writes about Robert Westall's The Kingdom by the Sea.
Sophie McKenzie on The Kingdom by the Sea by Robert Westall
Since I started writing fiction seriously – about five and a half years ago – something terrible has happened. I've stopped enjoying books as much and as often as I used to. I rarely find that I'm totally caught up in a story any more, completely invested in the characters and desperate to know what happens next.
I've read a lot of books I've liked – some which I've even thought were brilliantly written. But nothing much that truly moved me. The Kingdom by the Sea is one of the few exceptions to this. I should probably admit this makes me highly biased when commenting on it. I feel about Robert Westall much as I did about the anaesthetist who gave me an epidural after five agonizing hours of labour. Deeply and overwhelmingly grateful!
Anyway, after I'd read The Kingdom by the Sea - in one sitting, with breath held, laundry left undone and pleas for food from family members unheard - I went back and studied it, trying to work out how Westall creates such a masterpiece. I'm still trying to understand how he does it. This is what I reckon so far...
The first amazing aspect of this novel is the way it opens: we're shown a boy scurrying to his air raid shelter, somewhere in the north-east of England, during the Second World War. Within a few minutes (and pages) everything around Harry is destroyed - his home, his family, his whole life. Not wanting to be taken into care, or foisted on to the 'awful' Cousin Elsie, Harry runs away. All this is told with amazing economy and is powerfully dramatic.
Harry lives rough. He finds a dog, Dan. He finds food and shelter for them both. Through it all he learns and grows and, slowly and subtly, he changes - becoming tougher and more confident. After many trials and tribulations – that reveal more about the war at home (the loss, the camaraderie, the sense that its important to seize every moment, the predators waiting to pounce on the vulnerable) than any number of manuals and text books - Harry meets Mr M, who lost his own son in the war.
Reading this section of the book, I sighed with relief. At last, I thought, something good will come out of all this mess.
But Mr M insists he adopts Harry properly – and they head back to where Harry comes from to deal with all the necessary paperwork. The bomb that drops on Harry when he returns home is as devastating as the one that destroyed his house in the first chapter.
I can't quite bring myself to tell you what that final bombshell is, because the tension of not being sure how the story would end was one of the aspects of this novel I most enjoyed. I remember the sensation vividly - trying to work out where the story was going and seeing only two options. I was, I realize now, imagining only in black and white, foreseeing only an ending that was either 'a' or 'b', this or that, good or bad, happy or sad.
But, at the end, The Kingdom by the Sea is actually every shade of grey. Westall's book explodes, among other things, the myth of the neat ending. The denouement we are given is horrible and true and right and wrong and completely convincing. All at once.
The Kingdom by the Sea is written by a master completely in control of his craft. Westall wrings every drop of emotion out of Harry's situation, but never drifts into sentimentality. He genre-busts like it was going out of fashion. On one level this could be described as a historical adventure story, but it's also a life and death struggle and a rites of passage fable, about growing older than your years. It's a buddy story – the longest, most important relationship in the book is probably between Harry and his dog, who gives the boy a reason to live. Most powerfully for me it's a family drama, capturing the pain of a father who has lost a son and the dragging, sinking realization of a child who sees his parents shrunk to size, no longer the gods of his world but small and weak and vulnerable.
I can't tell you how inspiring I found this book – both the story itself, and the skill with which it's written. I don't mind waiting another five-and-a-half years either, if the next book that moves me with a passion will be as good as this.