Inspired by real events, this is the story of three friends, and a tragedy that will change them forever. Set in the working class streets of Walworth South London in the early 1900s the book concentrates on Tom, Jimmy, Itzhak and their families.
If you’re familiar with London and in particular the Walworth area this book is so much more than a story of friendship, it is a story of south London, a history of the streets and the families that made it such a complex place. Despite progression over the last 100 years or so this book is an echo of life now, families crammed into small houses, parents working all hours to provide for their families, children with dreams of doing something different, not following the same path as their parents, making more of their life, seeing more, doing more, having adventures beyond the streets of Walworth. Aspirations every child should have and be encouraged to have.
This is the first book I’ve read by Stella Duffy and I’ll certainly be looking up some of her older work. She is a beautiful writer, crafting the world her characters live in and opening each of them up to us so that we connect with their inner soul. This book is nothing without the people, although there is one major tragedy towards the end of the book within the rest of it very little happens and yet Duffy keeps you entranced. The depth and history given to her characters is fantastic and slowly throughout the book she opens up them up to us, sharing their insecurities with us, allowing us to see the last troubling worries before they sleep and the hope and optimism for the future that wakes them each morning.
Life for the families of Walworth was hard, working 6 days a week most of the time, always wondering if they had earned enough to put food on the table, clothe the children, educate them. The struggles of the families contrasting with the dreams of the boys is an important part of this story which is handled very well by Duffy. It would have been easy to over dramatize the poverty but she successfully paints a realistic picture whilst also showing us the wealth held within the families. Close-knit communities where children are cherished and raised by all, where no one goes without in a time of tragedy, where there is always a chair by a warm fire and someone to share the burden.
At the heart of the book are Tom, Jimmy and Itzhak, best friends and partners in crime. When not in school or helping with work and household chores the boys are found exploring south London. From Clapham to Nunhead every street, park and waterside path offers them a new world to explore. Always looking for the next adventure the boys are over the moon when a new Scout troop is established in Walworth and they’re given permission to join. Each boy finds his own strength through the scouts, knot tying, map making, swimming, and leadership and together they prepare to embark on the biggest adventure of their young life a boat trip along the Thames to a summer scout camp in Sheppey. A Thames boat trip might not seem like much of an adventure to a reader today but when you picture the river of the time, a bustling waterway filled with cargo ships and passenger ships taking people to unimaginable lands, a vast stretch of water which the boys would have rarely crossed never mind travelled upon then you can begin to understand the caution and worry of their parents and the sheer excitement of the boys.
The lives of the people of Walworth were forever changed after the boat trip. In today’s age we are touched, more often than we’d like, by tragedies that impact entire communities and Duffy details wonderfully the conflict between a families private grief and a community’s need to mourn and commemorate.
This a slow moving book with wonderful stories within the story and it is an absolute pleasure to spend time amongst the families of Walworth.