Robert Westall 1929–
British young adult novelist and art and architecture critic.
In the space of five years, Westall has established himself as a distinctive voice in contemporary young adult literature. Each of his four novels has been praised for its originality, successful presentation of theme and prose style.
Westall's body of work is notable for its variety: his first novel, The Machine-Gunners, is a realistic, unsentimental account of life during the Second World War, while his other books are time-travel adventures which contain elements of history, mystery, and the supernatural. The Machine-Gunners, which won the 1976 Carnegie Medal, has been compared to William Golding's Lord of the Flies for its accurate depiction of adolescents operating without adult supervision.
The Machine-Gunners introduces several features now standard in Westall's novels: authentically described settings of Tyneside England; fascination with the capacity for violence, both physical and psychological, which exists in every person; shrewd observations of human behavior; a sardonic sense of humor; and above all the excitement and fluidity that mark a good story. Westall's novels raise questions about guilt, cruelty, chance, courage, the validity of war, the importance of myth, and the appreciation of the past. He has been criticized for creating plots that are often too complex and sometimes incomplete, and for his excessive use of swearing, violence, and sexual references.
Westall is often commended for his accurate depiction of the adolescent character, due perhaps to his years as a high school art teacher and guidance counselor. "There is an innocence and vitality in adolescents that endlessly recharges me," he has said. "I want to show them that life is basically a holy comedy—though sometimes a black one." By presenting his adolescent readers with mature themes, situations, and language, Westall shows respect for both their sophistication and their depth, while he continues to expand the boundaries of the young adult novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
I can think of few writers who have put on paper as successfully as Robert Westall has done in The Machine-Gunners the sheer muddle of [the Second World War] and the day-to-day difficulty, for civilians at least, of deciding what was important. This book has a remarkable authenticity of atmosphere. It would be wrong to recommend it as anything but a story but if young people want to know what the war was really like, this book should go some way towards telling them. (p. 2707)
Robert Westall tells his story in a no-nonsense fashion, setting the scene with a light, pointed use of local idiom, cutting in moments at an early warning post, in an air raid shelter, at school, in the McGill's kitchen or Nicky's lonely bedroom, always with due attention to personality. The action of the story is dependent, ultimately, on character. Because Chris is what he is, or McGill his strict, responsible father, or Rudi with his gambling streak or the shrewd schoolmaster Liddell, certain events happen that cause more events, until the final moment when muddle and mistake come to their dangerous yet almost farcical climax. For the timing and tempering of the narrative, the free flow and the relevance of the dialogue, for the controlled humour and perception in the drawing of character, this is a notable first book. (p. 2708)
Margery Fisher, "Special Review: 'The Machine-Gunners'," in her Growing Point,...
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The cunning, initiative and courage which [the boys in The Machine Gunners] show in carrying out their plan under the noses of the adults, as well as those of a suspicious rival gang, are totally convincing and most admirably recounted by [Robert Westall], whose insight into the boy mind places him in the William Golding league. (pp. 55-6)
No better junior novel than this has appeared for a long time…. Indeed, adult readers would learn a great deal from it. (p. 56)
Robert Bell, "Fiction: 'The Machine Gunners'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1976, pp. 55-6.
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[The Machine Gunners is] astonishingly good. (p. 438)
[Gripping] though the events are, it is not so much what but the way and why it happens that is important in this book. (p. 439)
[Westall's book] has two qualities that make it exceptional when placed against … other children's books about the war. First of all, his memory of the time, his recall of it and re-creation of it in his story, has a much sharper edge than anyone else's. No self-pity; no over-indulgence in nostalgia. Comedy, yes, but the sardonic, laugh-or-cry humor of wartime. And no sparing of the terrible sights, no forgetting or ignoring of the horror. He gets nearer to the living truth than others have done, and his brisk, strong, precise prose is full of little details—images that fill in the background to his story's events. There's the life of a whole community woven into the plot. (p. 440)
Just at [a] primary level—the recall of the way life was and the plotting which contains the reality and conveys its texture and sensation—Westall's writing is totally assured and confident. Remarkable in any book, all the more so in a first novel.
But the second quality I want to pinpoint changes The Machine-Gunners from an accomplished historical novel into a novel about today. Remember that focusing symbol of the gun. Remember too that the book is about a boy who begins by collecting shrapnel for...
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Robert Westall believes that he owes it to his readers (who will probably be twelve or over in the main) to be frank about adult frailty, allowing that children have more charity and fewer illusions than the average junior domestic novel recognises. His book is trenchant and candid and has something of the spontaneous, sardonic humour that is one of the more agreeable traits of the intelligent 'teens. The Wind Eye is not a swipe at orthodoxy nor at the older generation but an adept and adventurous attempt at a very individual kind of realism. (p. 3018)
Margery Fisher, "Magic Domesticated," in her Growing Point, Vol. 15, No. 6, December, 1976, pp. 3016-19.
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Robert Westall [in The Wind Eye] is primarily concerned with his characters, with the conflict between them, and with the way in which their attitudes and behaviour are changed, for better or worse, as a result of their experiences. By the end of the book, each member of the family has come to terms with themselves and with their relationship with each other; the benign influence of St Cuthbert has crossed the centuries and touched them all. The Wind Eye is a many-layered book, and it succeeds admirably on each level. Whether the book is viewed as exciting time fantasy or as a perceptive study of family behaviour, the reader is kept in thrall until the final page. And, above all, it reinforces Robert Westall's reputation as an exciting and stimulating new writer for the young.
Lance Salway, "Fantastically Familiar," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3900, December 10, 1976, p. 1547.∗
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The horrid, sordid aspects of the war are depicted [in The Machine Gunners] without sentimentality or sensationalism. Both children and adults are believable and the plot holds our interest. Unfortunately, the book loses some of its power and appeal because neither the adults nor the children stir our sympathy and affections. Only the German prisoner awakens any love or loyalty. A good book that might have been great.
Betty Baum, "'The Machine Gunners'," in Children's Book Review Service (copyright © 1977 Children's Book Review Service Inc.), Vol. 5, No. 5, January, 1977, p. 50.
[The Wind Eye] is a book of extraordinary power. The blending of present and past is controlled with complete mastery. The modern children and their parents, and the conflicts within the family group, are drawn most convincingly. Perhaps the best of a very good book is the way in which the setting, which is hardly described at all, plays its vital role in the action. Wise, often funny, sometimes deeply moving, this book might have a formative influence on those children who can meet its formidable technical and emotional demands. (p. 123)
"'The Wind Eye'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 41, No. 2, April, 1977, pp. 122-23.
An altogether different sort of undertaking from the author of last...
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The Watch House, set in the Robert Westall country of The Machine-Gunners, concerns Anne, who has been dumped like a lost parcel on Prudie, her mother's old nanny…. She becomes interested in the Watch House …, where there is a museum. The past begins to catch up with the present when Anne goes to dust the display cases there, and through her two unsettled ghosts begin to work towards their final emnity against each other….
It is a fast-moving, action-packed story written in a racy style; the dialogue is sharply observed and makes the necessary genuflections towards a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence and a bit more of the occult (there are several hypnotic trances)…. [The] trouble is that too many of the characters look and sound like caricatures: there are two fathers, one Catholic and the other C of E, who are like a religious Morecambe and Wise show; there is Timmo and Pat, a Professor Branestawm with his young assistant; Anne's parents, her mother spoilt and flighty, her father big, golden hearted; and even a shaggy dog and a Gallower pony, who perform their expected roles in the story. Anne is the only character who is not caricatured: and, curiously enough, she is the least well-known of all.
There seems to be a lack of respect between the author and his characters, and because the story does not evolve from the interplay of relationships between them, it has to do all the work on...
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The setting [for The Watch House] is again the north-east coast, again the 'feel' of this part of the country is marvellously well conveyed, and the native character, dialect and turn of phrase are absolutely genuine….
Anne becomes involved in supernatural activities which will chill young spines in no uncertain manner…. Well up to Robert Westall standards, this one. Boys and girls alike will revel in it, and it is a 'must', particularly for Machine-gunners addicts.
Robert Bell, "'The Watch House'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 26, No. 3, September, 1978, p. 264.
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Ever since I wrote The Machine-gunners (and in spite of the fact that my last three books have been fantasies) people keep consulting me about realism in children's books. Rather as if I'd been appointed high priest and was being asked to read the entrails. There is not much career-structure for high priests who fail to read entrails, so I'd better come clean with what I think. (p. 34)
Perhaps all the best books start by being written for only one child, and that child very close to you. They start when the child-within-the-author turns to the real child and says, "Come away with me and I will show you a place you otherwise will never see, because it is buried under thirty, or three hundred or three thousand years of time." There are many examples of this process. (p. 36)
That is why I wrote The Machine-gunners. No thought of publication: it lay over a year in manuscript before I even bothered to have it typed up. I wrote it only for my son, then twelve. To tell him how it felt to be me, when I was twelve. As I read it out to him, chapter by chapter, we were, for the first and last time, twelve-year-olds standing side by side. He had "come away" with me. Twelve spoke to twelve, without interruption.
By the time I wrote my second book, my first was being published. It was not just Chris looking over my shoulder, but my two beloved editors: helpful, sympathetic, tolerant, but with...
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At a first reading I felt that the historical sources for The Devil on the Road were too obtrusive in the narrative, but a second reading made the careful structure of the book and the skilful correlations of past with present a good deal more apparent. The infamous Witch-Finder General of the 1640's, Matthew Hopkins, and the sadistic false witness and greed he showed towards helpless victims in Suffolk, provide the basis for the story of a first-year student at London University who … is caught up—as victim, saviour or reincarnation?—in the fortunes of Johanna Vavasour and her efforts to help certain condemned cottagers on her family estate. Since it would appear that young John Webster did in the end change the course of history, or at least of one small part of it, it is perhaps best not to examine too closely the logic of his interaction with the past but rather to surrender to the vivid details which ostensibly explain it…. There is a moral in the book but it is implicit rather than dominant: those who accept the committed force and feeling of the story, its intermittent humour and strongly authentic idioms, will also accept the proclamation against violence and cruelty without feeling they are being bullied by the author. (pp. 3516-17)
Margery Fisher, "Shadows from the Past," in her Growing Point, Vol. 18, No. 1, May, 1979, pp. 3515-17.∗
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The only way to read Robert Westall is to give yourself up to the spell of his storytelling. When his tales are about various kinds of magic, good and bad, that lurk in the everyday world of modern mechanical objects, there is a chance that they have roots deep in the past…. There is no adequate means of summarising the to-and-fro of then-and-now to make the allegory [of The devil on the road] clear, but readers of The watch house and The wind eye will recognise the Bunyanesque quality of this tale—all modern speech and long-ranging concern for the consequences of intolerance. A challenging read and a novel in the top class. (pp. 165, 168)
Margaret Meek, "Eleven to Fifteen: 'The Devil on the Road'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 27, No. 2, June, 1979, pp. 165, 168.
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There are always problems with time travels which involve real histories, and The Devil on the Road does not escape them, though Westall handles the transitions with great subtlety and skill. But the writing is so charged and vigorous, the timing of the plot so carefully measured, that the customary difficulties are minimized.
John Webster seems very real indeed, and likable; and even better, there is a young cat, deeply involved in the story and central to it, who is surely one of the best and most charmingly drawn cats I've ever encountered in a book. Her presence in the story does for it what real cats can do for real life—she is all animal but still profoundly enigmatic, a creature of many wisdoms, a link between the known and the unknown. As such she epitomizes the story itself in all of its convolutions. The author is to be congratulated on a superb characterization here.
Without the cat and John Webster's hard-edged, vivid voice, The Devil on the Road would be just one more in terms of suspension of disbelief. And for this reader, at any rate, the book's final section, in which a group of characters from the past cross back into the present with John, allows disbelief to drop down again with a clunk. For me, the shape of the novel is damaged hereby, and the fragility of the premise fatally exposed.
But American teenagers ought to enjoy this story very much and identify easily...
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Set in both today's England and Civil War England, [The Devil on the Road] describes the experiences of John Webster in each time period. The author attempts to develop the main character and to set the basis for the novel before he allows Webster to traipse back and forth in time. The results are useless….
What sustains the story is a fictionalized account of a witch hunt in Cromwell's England. Transported back to that era, Webster finds himself forced to decide whether to accept passively the obvious wrong of witch hunting like most inhabitants of that period or to resist. Factors like his ability to transcend time and knowledge of past events help him make his decision. In such instances, the reader is given a dose of suspense and morality.
Those two components rescue The Devil on the Road from the "So bad, it will never be stolen from the library" cater-gory. And even though the author treats hackneyed themes of time travel and witchcraft, he successfully deals with the themes by subordinating them to the chief personalities of the book rather than letting the themes dictate to the personalities their behavior. (Only occasionally do these primary personalities discuss anything that may serve as a catalyst to young reader's hormones, thus meriting the book a "B" rating).
R. Greggs, "Young People's Books: 'The Devil on the Road'," in Best Sellers...
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