Robert Westall Aidan Chambers - Essay

Aidan Chambers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 469 words.)