One interesting thing about making a point of reading books I’ve had on my To Be Read shelf for a long time is that I end up picking up books that I don’t remember getting. I have them, but I have no idea why. In the case of this novel by Rosie Alison, I imagine I got it when it turned up on the 2010 Orange Prize shortlist. The subject matter, child evacuees during World War II, interests me, and perhaps I saw some reviews of it at that time although I don’t remember hearing anything about it recently. At any rate, because so much time has passed since I got it, it’s almost as if I’m reading it cold.
The book begins with the start of World War II, when 8-year-old Anna Sands is preparing to be evacuated with her classmates. The process is organized, yet weirdly chaotic, as the children are moved along with no clear indication of their destination. It’s all down to what line they end up in. Anna, hoping for the seaside, avoids the line that gets off the train at Leicester and joins the line to board a different train, one that ends up at York. There, Anna ends up with a large group of children at Ashton Hall. Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, a young childless couple, have decided to turn their large home into a school that will house as many evacuees as they can manage. Anna comes to love Ashton Hall, and although she struggles with the social morays of getting along with other children, she becomes a stellar student.
But Anna’s story is not the only, or even the main, story Alison tells. As the children find a new, temporary home at Ashton Hall, the Ashton marriage is falling apart. Thomas, wheelchair-bound from polio, has lost the tenuous connection he had with Elizabeth when they first married, and both begin to see potential for love outside their marriage. Meanwhile, Anna’s mother, Roberta, is enjoying her freedom from life as a wife and mother while Anna is in York and her husband Lewis are off at war. In Poland, the diplomat Sir Clifford Norton and his wife Peter are coping with a world under attack.
This is a lot of story for a single book, and it doesn’t quite hang together. The events at Ashton Hall get the most attention, and these are the parts of the book that work best. Anna’s experiences in particular are follow a clear and compelling emotional arc, and I liked reading about her, even though there were moments when I wondered if her reactions were a little too mature for her age. I don’t know any 8-year-olds well enough to gauge that. Anna witnesses a few key moments in the fraying of the Ashtons’ marriage, and that interplay worked nicely. Alison puts us in both Thomas and Elizabeth’s heads, so we’re able to understand both perspectives, but reader sympathies are directed more toward Thomas. I wish she’d spent more time in Elizabeth’s head as the story developed, but she disappears from the narrative for long stretches, so it’s harder to care about her increasing discontent and its attendant self-destructiveness.
When I took a journalism class years ago, my professor instructed us to maintain focus as we wrote by placing a sentence on the top of our computer monitors: “This story is about …” If we started writing something that didn’t fit what the story was about, we needed to rethink. I think that prompt would have helped this book. When the novel leaves Ashton, it tends to leave itself. Roberta’s relationship to Ashton makes some sense, because she is Anna’s mother, but it didn’t add much. If the book were about Anna and her family, with little about the Ashtons, that would have been fine. But in trying to be about Anna and her family and about Ashton Hall, the book feels like it’s all over the place. Add in the occasional tangents in Poland, and it’s entirely too much. (The Acknowledgements reveal that the Nortons, the only real people in the book, are relatives of the author, and their story got her interested in the period. Their story could make a good book, but it doesn’t feel like part of this book.)
It’s too bad about the book’s lack of focus because I liked parts of it very much. Alison’s descriptions of Ashton Hall and of wartime London and Warsaw have just the right amount of detail. It’s nice writing that doesn’t show off. If the plotting had held to the same standard, this would be quite a good book. But as it is, it’s merely OK.