Review Blog

Nov 29 2013

Stay where you are and then leave by John Boyne

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Random House, 2013. ISBN 9780857532947.
Set in London on the eve of the First World War, the close, loving family comprising five year old Alfie, his mother Margie and father Georgie is warmly presented in the introduction to this story. These are simple people with limited expectations and aspirations, yet they work hard and care deeply for one another.
Working for the dairy, Georgie drives a horse drawn cart from house to house delivering milk and Alfie's greatest dream is to join him on his rounds. The occasion of his fifth birthday should be one of celebration, yet apart from Granny Summerfield , aged neighbour Bill, best friend Kalena and her father, all guests cancel at the last minute due to the declaration of war with Germany. Alfie is disappointed but his life falls apart when his father enlists in the army a few days later.
Complex notions of service to Crown and country versus conscientious objection, responsibility to family in the face of societal expectations and living with accusations of cowardice are elements which are explored and depicted by the author. Detention of potential enemies also features.
The naivety of Alfie's perspective on this calamitous event involving international politics and armed conflict helps mirror the simplistic attitudes of young men who eagerly joined the fray. Living in an era of industrial exploitation, it seems absurd that so many rushed to join the ranks of those who would serve the needs of politicians, incapable military leaders and capitalists who profited shamelessly from the carnage. This novel helps us to reconsider modern points of view developed with the luxury of hindsight , comfortable living standards and security from war. As Alfie was powerless under the control of benevolent parents, soldiers who enlisted and those later conscripted to take play a part in this previously unimagined horror were equally without capacity to alter destiny.
Alfie's and Georgie's relationship is particularly poignant because Georgie has explained that he became the 'man of the house' at an early age when his father was killed in a mining accident. Both understand that the loss of a breadwinner means unending financial hardship and misery for a family.
Four years later, Georgie's letters have become fewer and those which do arrive are nonsensical before they stop completely. Alfie's mother perpetuates the myth that he is serving on a secret operation yet Alfie, a boy with shrewd intelligence beyond his years seeks truth. An unnecessarily contrived coincidence whilst working as a shoe shine boy provides Alfie with the information he needs to discover what has really happened to his father and he encounters a reality which is rarely the subject of adolescent fiction.
Rob Welsh

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