Kathryn Evans was dragged up via an inner city comprehensive school in Portsmouth. She later had her grammar repeatedly corrected by Philip Ardagh until she absolutely knew what an apostrophe was and would no longer shame herself on Facebook. She's been an actor, a cleaner, a farmer's wife (still is and note the use of that excellent apostrophe). Now she writes books for children in between paying wages and filling in endless, pointless forms for DEFRA. You can read her blog here. Kathryn's literary agent is Sophie Hicks at Ed Victor. Here she writes about Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful.
Kathryn Evans on Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
Like most writers, books litter my life like stepping stones. They make a strangely uneven path at that: Enid Blyton; Alf Prøysen; Roald Dahl; Richard Adams; George Orwell... In my library, Jilly Cooper nestles next to Chaucer and Wilkie Collins. I am a promiscuous reader; I've had dalliances with everything from Mills and Boon to Medieval English.
Through my teens I feasted on SF: Huxley and Wyndham; Frank Herbert's Dune series. I devoured the classics, Dickens, Hardy and Eliot. Our daughter is named for Emily Brontë; I still love Wuthering Heights - such perfect bone structure. The tragedy-streaked optimism of those books appealed to the 15-year-old me. Until I read Jude the Obscure. I'll never forgive Hardy for that book. Reading it was like being pushed face-down in a puddle and then having Hardy jump up and down on the back of your head.
I moved on to horror – I think I thought it was grown up – I tormented myself with James Herbert and Stephen King and some weird book about mould? I didn't sleep for months. I had to weigh the books down with shoes so bad things didn't come out of them at night.
My favourite book was never going to be a horror story, but it is a book that kept me awake at night - both reading and thinking. It's a book I can hardly talk about without feeling choked.
Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful.
It's a children's book and it's a perfect book. Anyone who thinks writing for children is somehow 'less' than writing for adults should read it. If you have any heart, it will change your mind.
The subject matter, the First World War, is not new but Morpurgo makes it feel immediate and fresh. He takes us straight into the story with the first three words - the chapter heading in fact: FIVE PAST TEN. From the beginning we know we're on a countdown to something and it becomes rapidly apparent that the something will be both terrible and life-changing.
The characters are finely drawn, so much so they feel like family. Charlie and Tommo's relationship is warm and real; their quirks and foibles, their failures and victories make us love them both. The handling of all the relationships is so delicately done, you find yourself torn in your loyalties, wanting happiness for all of them.
Through the long night the book documents, Morpurgo takes us from childhood memory to the horror of war and back again. The writing is rich and it's funny. We're given a strong sense of family life growing up in poverty, deep in the countryside. Morpurgo takes us through Molly and Charlie's courtship; Tommo's muddled emotions; the death of their father. Alongside those memories are the wartime ones. We share in the camaraderie of young men facing death daily, and Morpurgo shows us the vein of evil, of cruelty, that flourished in the hideous darkness of war, through the character of Sergeant Henley, a tangibly malevolent force.
The juxtaposition of the past and the further past gives the book a feeling of light and shade, of balance. This creates a dynamic texture, reinforced by Morpurgo's sparse but specific attention to detail: 'the mouse sitting in front of the light of the lamp', 'the boots, strange and heavy on his feet', 'a leather suitcase under the windowsill, and Molly's coat over father's fireside chair'. There's something magic about Morpurgo's ability to conjure place and it grounds you in his story.
Throughout the book, the clock is ticking, and we are led, with growing fear, to the dawn. TEN TO MIDNIGHT, TWENTY EIGHT MINUTES PAST ONE, NEARLY FOUR O'CLOCK. Something terrible is going to happen, and by now, we think we know what it is.
And then it's worse than you think.
The final, heartbreaking twist to the story, catapults this book into a league of its own. It's sad, it's beautiful, it's poignant, it's clever, it's important.
It's the best book I've ever read.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]