Noel Bostock is ten years old and he has no family. His godmother, Mattie, is a wonderful caregiver for him except… she is beginning to forget things. At first it’s just things like the name of the church they can see on their walks to Hampstead Heath (St. Paul’s Cathedral). But then it progresses and Noel writes words on labels and tapes them to objects like Mattie’s shawl.
Mattie has taught Noel many things, and after a while their roles are reversed. Even though he’s only ten he’s pretty self-sufficient… but then she begins to skip meals and stay in bed. And then one day she leaves the house and doesn’t come back.
What will happen to Noel?
Noel is a great kid; not very attractive and not well-liked at school but smart and quick on his feet. When the children are evacuated (because of course this is a novel set in World War 2, one of my favorite time periods to read about), Noel is one of the last two children to be taken in. And what a character Vee, his new caretaker is!
“What do you mean, you were wrong about me?’
‘Well, I…’ Vee huffed a bit, searching for an answer. ‘…I didn’t think you were all there,’ she said, finally.
He turned and stared at her. ‘You thought I was feeble-minded?’
‘You had a bit of a blank look, that’s all. And you didn’t say much, did you? And you packed a fur coat. In June.’
‘Not for wearing,’ he said. ‘It’s a memento.’
‘And the rock?’
‘A memento mori.’
‘And there you go! she said triumphantly. ‘That’s why you can’t do the talking. Every time you open your mouth, out comes Latin.’
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even with some raw and difficult situations (the bombings, the lack of empathy in some of the characters, the ‘every -man -out- for- himself’ philosophy so evident in some characters). I found I was there with Noel, experiencing hunger, fear, and wishing I were back with Mattie. I became angry for Vee at the way her indolent, selfish son Donald took advantage of her. And in reading this book so quickly (I couldn’t put it down!), I wondered at myself, since this isn’t usually the type of fiction that engages me.
That the author can create such quirky, believable characters is only part of her talent; the atmosphere itself is so realistic; the bombs falling, babies crying, the darkened streets suddenly illuminated by flares and the crowded, uncomfortable shelters. And as Noel’s circumstances change (and he changes with them), paralleled by Vee’s own deteriorating life events, their developing relationship brings a much-needed freshness to them both.
Perhaps it is because I admire reading about the sheer resilience of the human spirit and the creativity that some are gifted with. (Although, maybe creativity isn’t such an admirable trait when it comes to deception …) When coupled with the sheer determination to survive, I wonder at the ‘guts’ some folks have (and I know that for myself, I could never take those steps… or could I?)