The Children Left Behind is the fourth – and penultimate – instalment in her Shilling Grange Children’s Home series, which centres on the eponymous Suffolk orphanage in the aftermath of World War Two. Like the previous books in the series, The Children Left Behind follows the orphanage’s housemother, Clara Newton, this time through 1951 and 1952. The post-war setting is masterfully reinforced by the interweaving of key events of the early 1950s, including the death of King George, the re-election of Winston Churchill and the Farnborough Airshow disaster, which are vividly present in the lives of the characters.
The key points of the plot mix the mundane and dramatic to create a narrative that is never quite predictable. Much of the novel is driven by the relationships between Clara and other characters: the return of her estranged father, a new children’s officer with strong opinions being hired by the county council, the reappearance of a man she knew during the war, and her ongoing attempts to solve problems and find permanent homes for individual children. However, this instalment sees a series of unfortunate incidents befall the children’s home and its inhabitants, adding an element of mystery as the characters race to keep the children safe and uncover the culprit. The concluding chapters of the novel also feature a major incident when a day trip turns potentially deadly, leaving the audience in suspense as to whether all the characters will survive.
While The Second World War is understandably a popular period within historical fiction, much less attention is granted to its aftermath. These books therefore represent an opportunity to tell new stories, and to explore how the war’s events may have affected characters. This impact is most evident in the residents of Shilling Grange: from Jonathon who struggles with the legacy of his war hero father, to Gladys who was separated from her siblings in the chaos of the war and its aftermath, to Florrie whose disappearance into the care system made it impossible for her father to find her. However, it is also present in Clara’s relationships with those around her, particularly with Ivor, the neighbouring war hero and handyman, as she attempts to reconcile her feelings for him with her unwillingness to marry after the loss of her fiancé during the war.
The Children Left Behind is a heart-warming story of love and loss with a cast of interesting characters. The children at Shilling Grange are particularly well-written – distinct from one another, and all sympathetic in individual ways, without the differences in their personalities and backgrounds appearing forced. The novel is an excellent character-driven read set in a less common historical context, and its strong emotional impact sets up the upcoming sequel as a potentially tear-jerking conclusion to the series.
The Children Left Behind is out now and published by Bookouture.