This book has been on my shelves literally for years. And I think the reason it languished there for so long was that I didn't really have a proper idea of what it was about, having been handed the book at a bookcrossing meet-up so many years ago. But I am grateful that I had not yet learned self-preservation in regards to turning books down back then because this turned out to be an entirely worthwhile and appealing reading experience despite my years-long reservations.
Based on many events that Mantle himself witnessed as a boy in London during WWII, this is the story of John, a young boy on the cusp of growing up who becomes a teen and then an adult through the terrible years of destruction and deprivation. Childhood during war is still childhood but it has a gruesome backdrop no child should have to endure. John lives with his mother and his older sister in a sort of shabby section of London. His father is generally missing from their lives even before the war comes, causing them financial hardship. When the war starts, his mother takes in relatives as boarders to help them survive. But young John seems generally untouched by the war and the new circumstances at home because he is smitten with his neighbor Sheila. And the two of them grow up together as the war pounds on, coming closer, becoming more personal, and finally obliquely tearing them apart.
The characters here are compelling and real. And Mantle has drawn a very clear and detailed London, before, during, and after the Blitz using sight, sound, and smell all to good advantage. He has carefully drawn John and Sheila's relationship and then offered the reader the perspective of both characters through the use of different narrators for different chapters. John narrates the bulk of the story but other characters do get their say and help to flesh out the story. What Mantle has done so very well is to capture the everyday horror of living with a war and the sheer mundanity with which life must go on even while bombs are dropping all around. John and Sheila are engaging characters for whom the reader roots, even as their differences become clearer and clearer. Their story is touching and the plotline will carry the reader along happily. Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in WWII will thoroughly appreciate this smooth, evocative slice of historical fiction.