Can evil ever go away?
This is an extraordinarily powerful novel but The Seeing tells a very dark and painful story. And it tells it exceptionally well. You’ll wish it didn’t.
It’s 1953 at the seaside in Britain. Thirteen year old Lizzie smells of baby soap and lives in a big, comfy house. Natalie is wild, exotic and lives “off the beaten track” in poverty with her troubled mother and brother Philip. Philip can see things and he gets messages in his dreams. He can see inside people in ways that other people can’t. He can spot the hidden swastikas lurking in people’s hearts. And Natalie has a plan for the summer….
The Seeing is Lizzie’s story about the summer plan that takes them all somewhere terrible. Really terrible. Her story is about love, friendship, care, and cruelty. But mostly, I think it is a novel about loss: all the kinds of horrendous loss that result from war, the loss of innocence and love but also the loss of perspective.
The Seeing explores how important it is to realise that there are different ways of seeing things – and things can go wrong if you allow just a single view to dominate your thoughts. Of course, there is Philip’s seeing. He has the sight but he also wears glasses. Hugo, the artist observes people so that he can create his art. Lizzie starts to see things differently too. Although this is Lizzie’s story, each chapter contains different ways of seeing the events and people from the perspectives of Lizzie, Natalie’s journal and Hugo’s letters.
Diana Hendry’s writing is excellent. It draws you right in to the story so that you feel like you are looking down on the events as they happen. Uncomfortably for me, my own reading became part of The Seeing and I wanted to jump in and stop things. There is a particular page, early on, that sent a shiver down my spine – twice! It’s at the end of chapter five.
And be warned, this book won’t let you go easily once you’ve finished it! Anyone who’s ever read books by Robert Cormier or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies will know how this feels. It’s when the dark side of life that goes on in even children’s minds leaks out into everyday life – smack!
This is a very unsettling novel. An uncomfortable but compelling read. Diana Hendry creates an atmosphere that holds you in true suspense the way psychological thrillers do. But she also paints a very dark picture of how the immediate post-war period affected people in different ways. The children’s story excels in showing how difficult it must have been for them to make sense of it all.
I thoroughly recommend reading the short interview with The Seeing’s author, Diana Hendry, which follows this review. Read it before or after The Seeing. Your choice. But after you read it, I think The Seeing is a book you’ll want to talk about. I did.
It’s also a book that I’ve already found myself recommending to people, adults and young teens alike.
Bodley Head, 5 July 2012, London, hardback
This copy: received for review from the publishers
We Sat Down for a Chat with Diana Hendry
M: What inspired you to write this novel?
Diana: I suppose I've been rather haunted by my childhood memory of that that post-war period. It was a story that nagged at me to write.
M: Have you ever been inside a bomb shelter?
Diana: Yes - the one in the story, though I've fictionalised it quite a lot.
M: Did you know any 'post-war' children from the same time as the characters in your novel?
Diana: I was a post-war child myself as were most of my school friends.
M: The novel includes an adult's point-of-view and is important to the plot. This is different to lots of current teen fiction I have read. Did you set out to write The Seeing as a 'children's' book?
Diana: No. It began as an adult story with a lot of autobiographical episodes in it. But the story of the children came to dominate it and in the end I cut out all the autobiography!
M: Do you think that children's books should offer hope?
Diana: Yes. I'm really sorry that this book doesn't have a happy ending but I couldn't force or fake one. I wanted to convey that there's a creative way of seeing and a destructive way - I hope there's hope in that.
M: In the last chapters, the patterns in the chapter points-of-view changes. Why is this?
Diana: Well, it's quite pleasing to avoid expectations and change a pattern. But importantly, I wanted to get in some episodes about Philip and his dreams.
M: Are there any other things you would like to say about The Seeing?
Diana: It took me a long time to write - many drafts. I still find it a painful book. But I hope you've enjoyed reading it, if 'enjoyed' is the right word.
Thank you very much, Diana, for answering these questions. Your answers certainly helped me to feel more at ease with the book. You can find out more about Diana Hendry on her website.