Wednesday 16 January 2013

Hero On A Bicycle, by Shirley Hughes: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Shirley Hughes is of course well known for her hugely successful picture books for young children, with their beautifully detailed pictures and stories about the everyday hurdles and excitements of family life.

This book is her first novel, and it has a very different setting - Florence during the Allied advance of 1944. Thirteen year old Paolo and his older sister Constanza live with their English mother on the outskirts of the city. Their Italian father is an anti-Fascist, and has been absent for some time; the family - and everyone else - assumes that he is fighting with the partisans, but they don't know where or in what capacity.

Conditions are difficult. Food is in short supply, the German occupying force is everywhere, and the family's friends and neighbours are wary of being associated with them because of their father's suspect status. Paolo is frustrated; he wants to be doing something, he wants to be a hero. At the beginning of the book, he is out on his bike at night, as is his wont. (He thinks his mother and sister are unaware of these nocturnal expeditions; in fact, they know perfectly well what he's up to and lie awake worrying until they hear that he's safely home.)

On this particular night, the possibility of danger suddenly becomes frighteningly real, as Paolo is stopped by some rather fierce armed partisans who give him a message for his mother. She is to shelter two men for a night, and then they will need to be guided into the centre of Florence. She doesn't want to be involved - she fears for the safety of her children - but in the end she is persuaded - and Paolo even manages to get her to agree that he is the best person to act as a guide. At last, he's going to be doing something!

Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. But during the two or three days over which the action takes place, Paolo and Constanza - and other characters - learn a great deal about life, war, and themselves. For me one of the most significant lessons was that nothing is black or white: the partisans may be on the right side politically speaking, but they're not particularly heroic, or kind, or - well, just nice. Similarly, some of the German characters are unpleasant, but there's one in particular who is drawn as sympathetically as the allied escapers; people are not simple, particularly in extreme situations.

It took me a little while to be drawn into the story - to begin with, I wasn't sure how much I liked the characters of Constanza and her mother - but as the story picked up pace, they revealed themselves to be far more complex and interesting than they had at first appeared, and I was gripped. This is a novel that encompasses a great deal by focusing on a small event: it reminds us how, particularly during the war, everyone had their own story to tell - and that the stories of ordinary people could, in their own way, be every bit as interesting as those of the great.

The book is published by Walker at £6.99


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