Henry, believing himself loyal to his dead father, initially despises certain other people and their ideals, but later learns that his father is less of a hero than he had thought and that the others deserve better from him. Mr Finch, his new schoolteacher, places him together with the two class outcasts: Jeffries, son of a deserter; and Pip, an illegitimate son with a somewhat fey manner. They also encounter Grace, a severely dyslexic girl with an unusual singing voice, better suited to smoky nightclubs than to the school assembly hall.
His father turns up alive and Henry’s eyes are opened to many things, including his grandmother’s selfishness and bigotry. It takes a while for everything to become clear to him but as it does, his friendship with Pip and Jeffries deepens, and he is instrumental in helping their families when they are evicted from their respective lodgings after his Gran makes trouble with their landladies.
Henry develops an eye for photography and a fascination for the relatively new medium of film. When his father offers him a filming job in London, he goes along with the idea at first, but becomes suspicious and eventually refuses. At the same time, Henry’s mother and stepfather tell Henry’s father that they want him and his mother, Henry’s Gran, out of their lives.
In a dramatic final act, Henry’s father takes revenge on the family, destroying their house and kidnapping Henry and his little sister Molly. Henry manages to get Molly away but is himself only saved when the police turn up. Henry’s mother learns that she was never legally married to his father and is therefore not a bigamist as she had feared. And Henry is offered a job on a filmset in London.
The only point with which I really take issue is a confusion between the need for tolerance and goodwill towards the fact of remarriage or illegitimacy and the acceptance of those things. It’s a moral quibble, not a dramatic one. And the book is hardly strident in putting its point across. Pip is only just illegitimate after years of his parents’ courting. We don’t know about Lily’s divorce, but Henry’s mother clearly has a good case for divorcing her abusive husband; and she and Bill stop sleeping together when Henry’s father turns up. The way in which Pip and his mother are treated is completely wrong. That Henry’s father was abusive, and that Bill is the better man are indisputable. I have nothing but sympathy for the characters’ situations and nothing but disapproval for the way in which they were treated. But there’s no counterbalance, however small, which points out that, maybe, Pip’s parents might have waited nonetheless; or that, no matter how complicated the matter, Henry’s mother is still married to his father while he’s alive. Ultimately the story wriggles out of the latter issue by revealing late on that her first marriage was invalid. Which makes Henry illegitimate but leaves his mother and Bill legally married without any complications.
I give the book a thumbs-up overall. The style is straightforward and readable. There’s an overall sense of generosity and understanding rewarded. I regret that the author portrays intolerance of divorce as one more social prejudice. In any case I suspect that modern youngsters will find it difficult to understand just what all the fuss was about.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. This review originally appeared in its entirety on his website goodtoread.org.