“ 'We wish we could go to the future,' Cyril said, 'But somewhere quite near, please.' ” At the beginning of Kate Saunders's heart-wrenching final adventure of Edith Nesbit's Psammead, the four older children – Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane – are still living innocently in 1905. The Psammead is the ancient sand-fairy who has been granting them wishes, with varying degrees of success, since they first dug him up in the classic story Five Children and It (1902). Nesbit's children encountered him again in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and once more in The Story of the Amulet (1906). The Amulet is a time travel story and includes scenes set in a benign Utopian future which reflects the author's own Fabian aspirations. The real future for those young Edwardians would be cruelly different. In the prologue to Saunders's Five Children on the Western Front the Psammead sends the children forward from 1905 to 1930 to visit their friend, the professor. While they are there Anthea looks at some photographs – but what they show is not the same as the photographs they glimpsed during The Story of the Amulet. “ 'I saw a couple of pictures of ladies who looked a bit like Mother and might have been me or Jane but I didn't see any grown up men who looked a bit like you boys. I wonder why not.'
Far away in 1930 in his empty room, the old professor was crying."
And so was I! The current spate of World War 1 remembrances is hard on the emotions and one or twice I've been ashamed to find myself suffering something close to compassion fatigue. I approached Five Children on the Western Front with slight trepidation – was it just going to be a clever idea brought out at an opportune moment? I read it in the happiest of circumstances (lazing in the sunshine down a river on a boat) and was completely unprepared to find myself sobbing helplessly over the final pages. With my head I had guessed what would happen; in my heart I was overwhelmed. I opened that last chapter again just now to check the sequence of events and, dammit, I'm needing to wipe my eyes and blow my nose before I can carry on writing.
How has Kate Saunders managed this? Her novel is far richer and deeper than Nesbit's and, for my taste, funnier as well. This isn't intended to be dismissive of the Founding Mother – Edith Nesbit has a stature and originality that the rest of us will only ever dream of – but rereading her Five Children and It did make me aware of the limitations of the string-of-adventures format. Five Children on the Western Front has several story-lines, a plot, a wider range of tones and characters and the scope to be part of something that is bigger than itself. It's certainly a book which hits that magic, inter-generational space where both adults and children can read with full engagement.
Five Children on the Western Front belongs less to the children than to the Psammead. The sand-fairy is in trouble, deservedly so. “By the sound of it you behaved like an absolute cad,” says the Lamb. “My dear Lamb everyone kills a few slaves.” He is comic, he is nasty and can be seen as the prototype of all fallen emperors. There's a brief chapter where the action fast-forwards to 1938 and he's discovered chatting amiably with Kaiser Bill, with whom he feels much in common.
When the Psammead arrives back in Nesbit's Kentish gravel pit in October 1914, just as Cyril, the oldest boy, is leaving for the war, he's been stripped of his powers. He's confused, vulnerable and furious “A stiff little boulder of crossness” as Saunders memorably describes him. He has been sent down to repent and it's lucky for him that Saunders has added a sixth child, nine-year-old Edie, to the original five. She's the only one who has time to stroke and care for him as her older brothers and sisters cope with the army, university, school and (for the older girls) their first attempts to challenge their parents' pre-war expectations. They are busy and are occasionally exasperated with Sammy's obdurate selfishness and his refusal to acknowledge his past crimes. Edie, however, sees “bewilderment in his eyes and lurking terror”. Her love is constant and undemanding and gives him his best chance to learn the lessons of the universe.
The Psammead does learn and tears are the true response. I've relished all Kate Saunders's books since the day she bought her Belfry Witches series to our children's village primary school but this is The One. Five Children on the Western Front will be published by Faber in October and I want to press it on every reading household. There is an Author's Afterword which reminds us, poignantly, that constant love and premature loss are not confined to 1914-1918. Some of us will still suffer “the worst sorrow there is.”
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