Fourteen-year-old Barney Holland is sent to board at Carding House School on Lindsey Island in the North Sea after his mother abandons him. Barney is not accepted by the boys at the school. He is an outsider and, coming from Camden Town, is seen as being lower class. He is bullied and isolated until he makes an awkward alliance with Belinda Flood, the housemaster’s daughter, expelled from her all-girls’ school and allowed to attend lessons alongside the Carding House boys. Barney and Belinda meet an older boy, Ivor Morrell, and are drawn into his strange and secretive world, with tragic consequences.
It is 1953, and the war still casts a long shadow over the lives of the people on the island. The three misfits meet a woman accused of being a collaborator during the German occupation of Lindsey. The body of a baby is found buried near the school, and secrets about the island’s wartime past start to emerge. The school is an inward-looking, enclosed place, which gives the story a claustrophobic feel. Kent focuses on the small, telling details, letting a sense of menace gradually unfold. She captures the casual cruelty of the staff and pupils and an almost callous indifference to suffering and loss, as much a legacy of the war as the names of former pupils on the memorial plaque in the school chapel.
The observations are sharp and the characters rounded. The age of the central characters and the setting suggest that this is a YA book, but I feel the story is too slow and subtle to engage the YA reader. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this well written, carefully researched and atmospheric book to anyone who enjoys character-led stories.