by Diana Hendry
Short and far from sweet, ‘The Seeing’ is a sparse, terse tail of how the war has damaged the minds of three children, though two were only babies when it ended and one born years later. Set in a small seaside town in 1956: World War 2 has been over for eleven years but its legacy lingers in returning soldiers -fathers and brothers and boyfriends, and the bomb sites and bombed out buildings found in every town even decades after the war ended. Air raid shelters are still around, ideal dens for kids to play in and the legacy, the memory of the war is everywhere: in comics, at the cinema, in the stories told by parents and older siblings, in the tales told of fathers who did not return.
The war has painted a peculiarly intense mural in Natalie’s head. Her father died at Colditz – she says (but did he? It seems rather romantic; it feels like something made up. I suspect Natalie’s father had used the war to do a runner from his harridan wife). Natalie’s mother is a prostitute (another legacy of the war, perhaps). Natalie’s home-life is squalid, there is never any food or comfort there. Natalie hates the ‘uncles’ who hammer on her door and tell her ‘she’s next’. She wraps herself in a secret fantasy life, draping the room she shares with her brother with blankets and rags like something from an Ali-Baba tale. She hides in the excitement of her mind-damaged brother Philip’s visions and trances. Philip screams when he ‘sees’ left-over Nazis, ‘the swastikas on their hearts’. It gives Natalie’s life purpose – to root the secret Nazi’s out, because ‘how can evil just stop?’.
The tragedy plays out in the voices of the children and Hugo, an artist, friend of Philip and Lizzie, but the main voice is Lizzie’s. Lizzie still feels the war too, but in a very different way from Natalie. Lizzie’s home is comfortably suburban; money and food are abundant, the carpets are deep, the curtains thick velvet, and all cloaked in a stifling bourgeois respectability that Lizzie craves escape from. Lizzie’s mother is Jewish; Lizzie is well aware that if the Germans had won the war, they would have been packed off to the concentration camp but she still hates the peace and yearns for the excitement of wartime. Both girls are looking or escape, for excitement, and when Natalie arrives at Lizzie’s school, ‘like the wild west wind of Shelley’s poem’, Lizzie is thrilled when she is chosen by the glamorous outsider as her special friend, ‘kindred spirits forever’. Together, the girls and Philip embark on a summer of driving out the left-over Nazis – until it all goes inevitably wrong…
And this is where the book begins to show that it is meant as a children’s book (something I didn’t know when I picked it up, fortunately – I would never have read it if I had realised that) because the trajectory of the tale becomes suddenly very predictable; everything is telegraphed in Philip’s visions and Natalie’s musings. I knew exactly where it was going to go and how it was going to end, but the interest is all in the telling. The journey into the heads of these bored child-adolescents is perfectly done. What they do, how they think, how they build excitement from the mesh of reality and fantasy, making their stories real – it was very much like what I and my tight band of friends used to do when we went hunting for ghosts in old buildings and the graves of missing children on half-wooded demolition sites. Though less extreme and far less cruel than what Natalie and Lizzie get up to, the essence of those long, hot childhood summers in those pre-tech and TV days, when children were meant to spend their days outdoors, felt incredibly real, perfectly pitched and told in refreshingly few words.