A Game of Soldiers by Jan Needle

In case it’s escaped your notice it’s 30 years since the Falklands War. And Jan Needle reminds us by publishing this adaptation of a three part schools programme which caused quite a stir back in the day. Nearly didn’t get made. Nearly won a BAFTA. Definitely gives us a new way of viewing a familiar news story. It holds up well and offers a retrospective view of recent conflict which can still have an impact on the reader, be they young or old.  Jan, with typical understatement describes it on his site as ‘five go mad in the Falklands’ but believe me, it’s a much darker story than Enid Blyton ever wrote.

The story of Michael, Thomas and Sarah, offers us a child’s eye view of the conflict from the centre of the action. Sitting somewhere between Whistle Down the Wind and Son of Rambow, with a hefty dose of Lord of the Flies added in, this story is disconcerting in some expected (and a few unexpected) ways. There is suspense, jeopardy and a deep sense of the sickening nature of war as the children grapple with the actuality of death and the confused and confusing suggestion that killing may be a patriotic duty.

Needle’s greatest strength here perhaps is in showing the disconnected, immature and illogical thought processes of the three children. He brings the world, and the mind of the child, clearly and sometimes chillingly alive. They are inconsistent, they are violent and petty and they are most of all children, trying to understand a world and a conflict foisted on them by adults.

Underneath though, we wonder about the parents. The children have strange ideas regarding patriotism and honour but they must have got these ideas from somewhere. The parents stay in the background (cleverly perceived through the eyes of the children) and as such we cannot work out their motivations. Their actions and belief systems (which have such an impact on the children) remain hidden and somewhat dark and suspicious.  Parents, farmers, the Army, all of them are strange to the children.

It’s compact and pacey and easy enough for quite a young child to read, but offers a moral which offers the opportunity for adults as well as children to reflect on the reality of war and its impact on the young.  Without wishing to write a spoiler, it doesn’t pandar to the requirement for a happy ending.  I haven’t ‘spoiled’ by writing that because the ending is both inevitable and unexpected at the same time.

The visual nature of the story is evident and on reading the novel I wished I’d seen it on TV.  A bit of internet surfing and I found part one on YouTube which is well worth a watch, if only to compare screen and narrative techniques and to put ages and faces to the children.  It’s one of the great things about ebook publication that contraversial stories such as this, which inevitably, eventually get put out of print by mainstream publishers, can be made available to new audiences. That’s putting power back into the hands of the writers – and the readers! And has to be a good thing.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Jan Needle here