Rachel Steven's novel Valentine Joe is a historically themed tearjerker [Review]

By John Millen
By John Millen |

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Valentine Joe 
By Rebecca Stevens  
Published by Chicken House  
ISBN 978 1909489608

The first world war started 100 years ago, so this year has seen an outpouring of books, plays, films and TV shows commemorating the fact. One of the most successful novels is Rebecca Steven's gripping and moving Valentine Joe. A short but emotionally heavy novel, this heartbreaking story is essential reading for readers of all ages.

Records from the war show that British boys as young as 15 lied about their age to get into the army. They went off to war in Northern France with no idea of the hell they would soon be facing. One of these very young and naive heroes was a boy called Valentine Joe Strudwick.

According to records, V.J. Strudwick was born on February 14, 1900. He joined up at the age of 14, and served in the army for a year. He survived several poison gas attacks, but was eventually killed by a shell on January 14th, 1916, just one month before his 16th birthday.

Little is known about Valentine. He ended up a statistic on a list of dead soldiers with his name on a gravestone in a war cemetery a long way from home. Stevens has made him the centre of a stunning novel that will reduce anyone to tears.

Stevens plays a clever trick with the structure of her novel. A modern-day teenager called Rose is travelling to the Belgium-France border with her grandfather to try to find the grave of an uncle who didn't return from the war. Rose has recently lost her own dad, and is struggling to come to terms with his death.

As Rose helps her grandad search for Uncle George's grave, she comes across the grave of a young soldier who was only 15 when he died - just a year older than she is now.

After dinner that night, Rose wanders off into town. But something odd has happened. She finds herself walking down a street that she does not recognise. This is not the same street she walked down with her grandad earlier. Somehow, Rose has slipped back in time, to the town as it was in 1915.

She can hear the sound of marching feet as soldiers arrive on their way to the front line. Amongst the tired faces, she glimpses a young soldier. Who is he? And why is he staring back at her?

Stevens manages the potential awkwardness of her central time-slip concept very well, and it never feels clumsily written. There is a lot of emotion, romance, history and tragedy packed into the 150 pages of Valentine Joe making it a short but outstanding read.

John Millen can be contacted on [email protected].