By the time Binny was eleven years old she had lived in two worlds. A child’s world, and a time-to-start-growing-up-now world. An easy world, and a hard world.Binny Cornwallis, the protagonist of Binny for Short, has gone through some hard times: when she was eight years old, her father suddenly died, and his passing propelled the family into bankruptcy. They lost the bookshop they owned, the nice big house with the garden, and — to Binny’s absolutely dismay — were forced to give up Max, the family’s (but really Binny’s) dog. In fact, Binny has to admit that it was losing Max that felt like the real tragedy, more so than her beloved father’s death. Binny feels somewhat guilty about this fact, but she has too much emotional honesty to be able to skip around it.
Now, three years after these tragic events, Horrible Aunty Violet (thus dubbed because she was responsible for Max’s removal from their lives) leaves Binny and her family a house: not just any house, but a house in a beautiful seaside town. The idea of actually going to live in it quickly takes hold in their imagination, and soon Binny finds herself transported to a place of sunshine, harbours, boat trips to see the seals, new friends, and new sworn enemies.
Oh, this book was perfect in so many ways! Let me start with the setting: Binny for Short was the perfect book to read on a lovely summer afternoon: the unnamed town where Binny and her family move has atmosphere and character in spades, and the surrounding sea and harbour and rock pools give the children’s everyday existence the feel of endless possibilities you associate with classic adventure stories. Secondly and even more importantly, there are the characters: I adored Binny herself, with her uncensored honesty and strong mind and unrelenting kindness; I loved her six-year-old brother James, a chicken-obsessed young troublemaker who tries to poison the cress by watering it with a different concoction every day; I loved Binny’s smart and musical older sister Clem; and I love Gareth, the contrary boy next door who becomes Binny’s sworn enemy the moment the two set eyes on each other (in that suspicious childhood enmity sort of way that’s virtually indistinguishable from friendship).
I also loved the family’s dynamics: the Cornwallis have gone through some rough patches, and, in the way of people who have endured hardships together, they’ve learned to look out for each other. Clem and Binny help their mother manage James, and they have developed an instinct for when to impose limits and when to humour their little brother (as well as each other). There’s a degree of warmth to their interactions that was lovely to see. This goes hand in hand with moments of real exasperation, of course: the Cornwallis are not a picture-perfect family, but they remain genuinely loving, and, most importantly of all, they also remain functional.
This is a particularly nice touch when you consider that our culture is saturated with depictions of dysfunctional single-mother families. Bringing up three children alone is a challenge, from both a financial and an emotional perspective, but that doesn’t mean that Polly Cornwallis is doomed to failure and her children to misery and psychological trauma. Circumstances have forced Binny’s family to throw away the script for a happy, well-lived life, and learn to manage in their own terms — which is what they do for the duration of the novel. They’re doing their best under the circumstances and trying to rewrite their definition of happiness (which just happens to be a favourite literary theme of mine).
The best thing about Hilary Mckay (other than her sharp and brilliant domestic humour, and her stunning writing, and her amazing characterisation, that is) is how many layers there are to her stories: as I said above, in some ways Binny for Short is a sunny, summery read — there’s a sense of potential and adventure, and several humorous episodes (mostly involving James) that provide immediate hooks for readers. However, these go hand in hand with little details that convey the hard emotional realities behind what the characters are experiencing, as well as with a bittersweet feel that permeates the whole novel.
There is, for instance, Binny’s mother’s struggle to get a job; her immense gratitude at finding something within walking distance from the house, even if it’s part-time and poorly paid; her careful description of the work she does at an old ladies’ home as “kind”; her complicated feelings when she has to leave the children alone to do the night shift — all hints at her financial struggles and the anxiety it brings. There are also little details like Clem’s sacrifices to go on paying for her flute lessons after her father’s passing; or Gareth’s hostility towards his father’s girlfriend, whom he refers to simply as Her. His feelings are taken seriously, but at the same time we’re able to see beyond his perception, and what we find is a kind, anxious, uncertain stepmother-to-be who’s trying her very best and isn’t quite sure how else to make her future stepson come around. It’s all so smart and subtle and masterfully done: accomplished with a light touch and with astonishing grace. It makes me tear up and want to clutch the book to my chest when I pause to think about it.
Lastly (mild spoilers for this paragraph), there is the ending: Binny for Short has a neat ending of the sort that relies on fortuitous coincidences, but I didn’t mind one bit because the emotional resolution feels absolutely earned. Also, I cried my little eyes out at A Certain Scene. You may call me a sap for it, but I can’t resist animal reunion scenes, and this was a particularly touching and well-written one. Hence the copious tears.
Bits I loved:
By the time Binny reached eleven it seemed that Clem had been right. Half right at least. Max had gone and Binny, although she hadn’t got over it, had got used to it. Just. Although for ages she had hoarded a box of dog biscuits in case Max should somehow find his way home, and even two years later she couldn’t help gazing after any black and white dog she saw. She had survived, but she hadn’t forgotten, and now it was a long time since she had last called ‘Max’ and been flattened by his welcome. A long time since she had burrowed her face in his fur, or heard his terrifying roar at the sight of any stranger.They read it too: Reading the End
‘But Clem was right, you have to go on,’ admitted Binny.
Going on was how the Cornwallis family, Clem, Binny, James, and Polly their mother, survived.
Poor Clem, thought Binny. Sometimes she also thought, poor James, remembering her father, infinitely patient, hour after hour, down on the floor with his creaking knees, laying out train tracks and miniature engines. There was no one now to play trains with James. The others tried, but they could not do it. James was too bossy and the boredom was too much for them. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ James had howled, beating the floor in rage.
Binny had never raged, nor huddled in misery. It made her feel bad. Perhaps, she thought, if I’d had a special thing, played a flute, or liked boring trains, it would have been the same for me.
But maybe not, because I still had Max.
While Binny still had Max it had been impossible to be wholly miserable.
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