The Exiles (by Hilary McKay)

It’s nearly six years since I was introduced to Hilary McKay’s excellent books for older children and teenagers. My favourite series is still the one starting with ‘Saffy’s Angel’, but I also like her ‘Exiles’ trilogy, about a somewhat bohemian family with four independent and very different daughters.

I look after a friend’s three daughters for a few hours each week, and since they’re the ages that three of the girls in the first book are, I suggested reading it aloud to them, a chapter or two at a time, over the course of a couple of months. None of them had read the books, and I very much like reading aloud to older children.

The Exiles’ are Naomi (13), Ruth (11), Rachel (8) and Phoebe (6). My friends’ daughters are 11, 8 and 6, and readily identified with their counterparts. Naomi tries to be responsible, but - like her sisters - spends much of her time reading, in other worlds. Ruth is keen on natural history, Rachel is something of a peacemaker, and likes food a lot; Phoebe is very determined and never goes along with the crowd.

The story starts with news of an inheritance from a little-known relatives. The girls all assume they’ll get their share, and start to make plans for their anticipated wealth. However, their parents have other ideas and decide to make some necessary repairs and upgrades to their house. These will take place over the school summer holidays, so the girls are sent to their grandmother who lives in Cumbria.

‘Big Grandma’, as they call her, believes that her granddaughters need to learn to be more responsible, and to learn some useful life skills. Her house is rather sparsely furnished, and she expects them to help with daily chores. They are deeply suspicious of her at first, and shocked to find that the only books in her house are recipe books and a large volume of Shakespeare.

But they’re resourceful girls, and after the first few days, they find things to do, and places to go, and start to make friends locally. There’s not a huge amount of action, but the writing is good with some irony, and it was very enjoyable to read aloud. Sometimes my young friends’ attention lagged a bit, and some weeks we forgot about it, but by the time we were half-way through they kept asking for more.

I had forgotten most of the storyline - I last read it in 2012 - other than the dramatic climax in the final chapters, which my small friends didn’t entirely approve of. But they liked the book very much, and hope I’ll start to read the sequel some time soon.

Definitely recommended for fluent readers, or as a pleasant, and often amusing read-aloud for children of about six and upwards.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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