Book 1 of a WWII cross-over trilogy, A Relative Invasion.
1937, South London. The Wilsons's worry about the threat of war blinds them to war developing in their own home. Their lonely son Billy is excited when his cousin, aunt and uncle move to live nearby. His excitement soon turns to dismay, for Uncle Frank is a bully who resents Billy’s sturdiness, while the frail and artistic Kenneth is hideously devious. The adults only see is his porcelain looks, not his darker soul. Now the same emotions that enabled Hitler’s rise - envy over strength, desire for new territory - ferment in the Wilson home.
Billy protects himself with imaginary power from a precious Cossack sabre, he has secretly seen in the home of his father’s friend. As war becomes a reality, Billy is evacuated and Kenneth sets out to invade Billy’s emotional space. The billet is desperately poor in comparison with Billy's middle-class home, but he finds unexpected affection and support there. There are many hardships and challenges for Billy to face. The sabre is an icon that sustains him, but is it destined to damage as well as protect?
‘A Relative Invasion – Book I, Intrusion’ by Rosalind Minett
Tensions are brewing in England as World War II is set in motion. As the adults’ anxiety spills over into five-year-old Billy’s world, his own battle is just beginning. An only child, he longs for a playmate, and when his aunt, uncle and cousin move nearby, he thinks his dream has come true. But cousin Kenneth turns out to be darkly manipulative and a bully who haunts Billy’s days, though the adults see only his porcelain looks and flawless manners. With emotionally distant parents who can’t understand his plight, Billy latches on to the idea of owning the precious Cossack sabre of his father’s friend. This icon sustains him through the invasion of Kenneth, evacuation and the shock of war, but will it destroy as well as save him?
Minett weaves a powerful and compelling narrative with strong and relatable characters, and offers an evocative portrayal of England’s war-time home front. Billy is immediately sympathetic and Minett perfectly captures a child’s viewpoint, adding a gentle and honest humour to the story. The mounting tensions between Billy and Kenneth parallel the rising agitation in Europe, and make the underlying manipulations of war more understandable to children. In terms of dialogue, it rings true both between the children and strained conversation of the adults. The author is deft in capturing that sense of tightly controlled emotions in the parents’ characters and in the act of showing, not telling. The scene where Billy’s mother ‘wields the wooden spoon viciously round the edges of the bowl’ is a great example.
There is good pacing between chapters, and the build-up of tension is managed well. Beginning the chapters with news updates helps to orient the reader and reinforce simultaneous narrative of what’s happening in Billy’s world and on the home front. The portrayal of family relationships is very well done and throws light on what attitudes and values were like in 1930s England – Billy’s mother greeting his father at the door and taking his briefcase; tense, sideways comments about jobs and money; and the sense of social and familial obligation. This and the war’s tension is offset by the humour that comes through when seeing it all through Billy’s five-year-old eyes. His misheard expressions – ‘jelly face’ for ‘angelic face’; ‘Nasties’ for ‘Nazis’ – add a warm comedic element. The pivotal scene where Billy and Angela find the Cossack sabre is very effective – it foreshadows the violence about to erupt in Europe, and shows through Billy the human impulse of both the reverence for the weapon but also the temptation to use it impulsively.
Historical Novel Society
Written from the view of a small boy, dealing with life corrupted by traumatic situations, the author very skilfully portrays the misery of being bullied. Kenneth is the bully, and it is only as his life begins to unfold that his own insecurities are revealed.
Billy, un-supported by his indifferent parents, faces the start of World War II and has to endure evacuation and the terror of the Blitz. To survive, he retreats into his own world where he imagines that he owns a Cossack sabre. The weapon becomes a talisman and his mainstay through hardships and the awful reality that is war.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The research is meticulously done with convincing historical detail – without descending into a history lesson, although at times the thoughts of the child appeared rather too sophisticated for one so young and the dialogue was perhaps a little heavy, but the characters are carefully drawn and very believable as real people. I look forward to reading future episodes.