Book review: The Valley of Lost Secrets, by Lesley Parr

Covert art by David Dean

Here’s a new release I’d be talking about if I was able to do my bookseller thing at the moment: in fact, I snagged a proof before going on furlough because it’s the Waterstones kids’ Book of the Month for January. It’s a debut novel from Lesley Parr, but told with quiet confidence, combining page-turning mystery with tender human drama. Twelve-year-old Jimmy and his little brother Ronnie are evacuated to the Welsh mining village of Llanbryn at the start of the Second World War. Why are there whispers in the village about the couple they’re billeted with? And what has happened to Duff, Jimmy’s only friend from home?

At the heart of the novel’s mystery is an image potent enough to be macabre: a lone skull in the hollow beneath a tree. Does the quiet village harbor a murderer? Could it be, as I imagined (given my taste in children’s fiction) an accidental bit of archaeology? But whilst uncovered bones will snare readers’ attention, the tone of the novel is far from gratuitous, moving to a bittersweet redemption that I liked a great deal. The consequences reach into the village community, recalling, in fact, last year’s When Life Gives You Mangoes. Perhaps that’s a marker of contemporary children’s fiction that it explores the fault-lines left by secrets buried by adults, as much as the adventures of children, finding and mending them.

Resolution is needed by those children too. Children’s fiction seems to have an affinity for stories of evacuation; after all, half its stories begin with a separation from parents and being thrown into a new landscape. There is something distinct about World War II evacuation’s necessity and inexorability that gives an extra, strange charge: most famously in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but in Carrie’s War and Goodnight Mr Tom too. Most recently, David Montgomery sent an evacuee on a quest back to London with his Midnight Guardians, connecting national angst symbolically with folkloric magic, dark as midwinter.

Parr’s story focuses on her young protagonists’ adjustment to a new life far from home. Perhaps that will speak to young readers, currently adjusting to a national ‘new normal’ that has adults feeling anything but. Young Ronnie, trusting and friendly, is open to the transition; Jimmy bitterly resents it, refusing to call their billeting with Mr and Mrs Thomas ‘home’. At one point, Ronnie’s wish to see fox cubs in the springtime touches a raw nerve in the older boy: “Don’t you know its wicked to want a war to keep happening just so you can see a flaming baby fox?’ Such bitterness is out of character for Jimmy, who spends the book protecting his younger brother, but that’s part of its force. Flaming evacuation, he thinks later, Flaming Wales. Making me say things I’d never normally say. Making me change.

The opportunity for change is relished by Florence, a girl from Jimmy’s old neighbourhood, belonging the notorious Campbell family (no relation) with their reputation for violence and petty crime. In another country, another world, Florence takes the chance to invent a new identity. Jimmy is disorientated by this at first; especially since his best friend also seems to have changed in this new setting, and not for the better. Bit by bit, and entirely naturally, Jimmy falls in with Florence and they solve the mystery of the skull together.

Interestingly, Parr gives the whole mystery to the evacuees, keeping the village children of Llanbryn, both friends and bullies, at a remove. This is a story about the contribution of outsiders to a community. It concludes, not on a return to London, but with a feeling of belonging in a place that previously felt, and regarded them as, alien. Jimmy, Ronnie and Florence have been inducted into the history of the place, and the community has widened to include them: though the setting seems distant in history, this emphasis of Parr’s makes her novel all the more timely for readers of 2021. Touching and entertaining, this book is not one to be kept secret!

You can order a copy of The Valley of Lost Secrets from Waterstones here, or of course support your local independent bookshop. Meanwhile, Nina Bawden’s exquisite novel Carrie’s War is available as a free audiobook from the BBC, here.