An affectionate, but never sentimental writer, Venning makes us care deeply about each of the siblings. We get caught up in their life stories, civilian as well as military. One minute we are in a hospital ward, where young Ruth is getting a “verbal flaying” from the ward sister and is comforting a young casualty of Dunkirk as his life drains away. The next we are at Sandhurst, where Walter is being punished for having a single strand of hair loose — but is not being properly trained for modern warfare.
Venning, a journalist who contributes to the Daily Mail, juggles all these different stories and locations with ease, weaving it into an engrossing whole. As well as a portrait of the world at war, this marvellous book also depicts a world that was soon to vanish.
By the time the war was over, the mighty British Empire was on its last legs. The views on class and race held by the Walkers, and by most other Britons, were about to be swept away, and a good thing too. Yet seeing the war through the Walkers' eyes, you realise what a truly extraordinary generation it was, and how much we owe them.
In this month, which marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, I highly recommend this engrossing chronicle of six middle-class siblings which tells the history of the conflict in microcosm, from the Home Front to Italy, Myanmar, Malaya and Thailand. Venning tells the miraculous story of the Walkers—four brothers and two sisters from Devon; one of them, Walter, is her grandfather—who survived the Blitz, the heat of battle and internment in Japan, and miraculously lived to tell the tale. But as Venning conveys, all their lives were irrevocably changed by war.