The unfinished business of war

11th November 1994 at 00:00
A Time of Fire, By Robert Westall, Macmillan Pounds 9.99 0 333 59936 5. A Swallow in Winter, By Billi Rosen, Faber Faber Pounds 10.99 0 571 17266 0.

Robert Westall's posthumously published A Time of Fire takes us back to the world of The Machine Gunners. It's a boyish world, Westall's Second World War Tyneside, full of Wizard comics and aircraft recognition books, a world in which bullies have names like Podger, and are effectively despatched from power in the playground battlefield by acts of frenzied self defence we find hard to condone, but impossible to condemn.

It's also a world in which people get killed. A Time of Fire opens with a German bombing raid which kills 10-year-old Sonny's mother. Prompted by a restless need for vengeance, Sonny's father leaves his reserved occupation to volunteer for the air force where he meets his death manning an anti-aircraft gun on a southern airfield during the Battle of Britain. All would be set fair for howling tragedy, were not Sonny blessed with perfect grandparents. His grandfather is a salt of the sea ex-trawler skipper, and his grandmother a loving, caring, dumpy pillar of strength who has seen trouble before and can cope with it again. Nostalgic stereotypes, perhaps, but enough to rescue the story from despair and provide engaging pictures of Sonny's new security as he plants the early potatoes with his grandfather in the gathering dusk.

Sonny's grandfather stands erect in his First World War medals at his own son's memorial service, but has learned enough to know that Sonny's father's masculine agitation was misplaced, "Another sort o' dad would ha' stayed home and stuck it out in that lonely house, an' takken care o' you . . . Yer Dad wasn't scared o' Jerries, or o' dyin' but he was dead scared o' loneliness. "

A Time for Fire is a rattling good read but also a moral fable about masculinity. Sonny may be fascinated by guns and scan the gutter for spent bullets, but faced with absolute physical power over a downed German pilot drowning in the garden, he makes the right choice between revenge and forgiveness.

The third novel in Billi Rosen's Greek sequence presents violence and revenge more starkly, without the moral wrapping paper. In A Swallow in Winter, Andi is 18 and newly returned to her extended family in a Greek village after fleeing the country five years earlier during the civil war of 1946 - 1949. She returns to a Greece uneasily at peace. Police chiefs exercise arbitrary rule; dissidents are still prone to disappear. And Andi has her own unfinished war to pursue: her desire to avenge the murder of her 10 year-old brother Paul.

There is also the business of being 18 to deal with, pursuing fun and friendship with her contemporaries in the village, when real loss and real brutality are always liable to intrude.

Billi Rosen achieves this uneasy mix at some cost to narrative clarity, the fuzziness of focus apparent in the Pooterish final paragraph: "So life would go on, punctuated by great events and insignificant incidents ..." Rosen's first two novels in the series (Andi's War and The Other Side of the Mountain) were better: more direct, more sculpted, and more successfully targeted at a young adult readership. And you need to have read them to pick up the threads of A Swallow in Winter with any degree of comfort.

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