Jan 27, 2014

The Exiles Trilogy by Hilary McKay

The Exiles by Hilary McKay: The Exiles, The Exiles at Home and The Exiles in Love
The Exiles trilogy by Hilary McKay: The Exiles, The Exiles at Home and The Exiles in Love
Readers of this blog will likely know about my undying love for Hilary McKay’s Casson family series. I devoured the six books that compose it in a little over a year and then sunk into a state of perpetual semi-despair that there aren’t any more of them. Hilary McKay is absolutely brilliant at characterisation and at low-key but very much hilarious domestic scenes. Her books are overall gentle, but they have a sharp underlying satirical edge which I love. Her writing is perceptive and often moving, and when I first read her I knew I’d come across something indeed special.

Back when I discovered her, several of you suggested that I try McKay’s earlier Exiles series: I only have myself to blame for the fact that it took me this long to listen. The books in the delightful Exiles trilogy — The Exiles, The Exiles at Home and The Exiles in Love — were published between 1992 and 1996, and you can tell Hilary McKay became a better and better writer as her career progressed. Maybe it’s partially because she has more books in which to develop the members of Casson family, but the characters, especially the adults, are more fully realised in her more recent series. However: this might make it sound like I’m telling you that you should read the Casson family books instead of these, when really, why would you not want to read both? Why would you deprive yourself of even a little bit of the humour and intelligence delight to be found in both series? There aren’t very many books out there as good as even Hilary McKay’s second best.

The Exiles trilogy is about the Conroy sisters, Ruth, Naomi, Rachel and Phoebe. When we meet them in the first book they’re respectively 13, 11, 8 and 6, and we follow for the next two years through holidays and school days and hilarious backfiring schemes. The girls feel themselves to be part of an amalgamation of sisters, which is occasionally divided into the Big Ones and the Little Ones. This is how they appear to the reader to begin with, but their personalities come sharply into focus as the story progresses. Ruth collects Interesting Bones, pines for Mr Rochester, and attempts to rescue ran over hedgehogs; Naomi is the quietly determined girl who turns over the soil in her grandmother’s cabbage patch in the middle of the night for a goodbye gift; eternally optimistic Rachel robs the post office in a desperate attempt to help her sisters; and Phoebe (my favourite) is an irascible, smart, and surprisingly perceptive aspiring international spy. Oh, and all four girls are devourers of books. This is how the series opens:
Naomi Conroy crouched uncomfortably at the end of the garden reading a book. As usual, she had spent her Saturday morning at the town library, searching the too familiar shelves for something new. On her left was the stack of books she had read since she returned, and on her right was the pile she hadn’t opened yet. She kept that elbow leaning on that pile to guard them from her permanently book-hungry sisters. Even now, she could feel herself being watched, and without looking up knew that Ruth was hovering close by, waiting for her to finish, when by law of the family the book would become common property, free for anyone to read.
Unlike Bill and Eve Casson, Mr and Mrs Conroy mostly remain in the background, but The Exiles trilogy has the amazing Big Grandma, who is kind in a gruff, unsentimental sort of way and whose relationship with her granddaughters I just adored. In the first volume of the series, the Conroy sisters are banished to Big Grandma’s house in Cumbria while their parents refurbish the family home, and when they arrive they’re convinced they’re going to have a miserable summer. To add insult to injury, Big Grandma (in a cheerfully hypocritical move) decides that the girls are not to have any books for the summer. What follows are six weeks of everyday adventures, small triumphs and tragedies (Ruth manages to see the badgers in a night-time excursion with Big Grandma; Naomi breaks her arm) and a warm, respectful portrayal of the world inhabited by children.

In The Exiles at Home, Ruth decides to use the ten pounds Big Grandma gives her for Christmas to sponsor Joseck, a child in Kenya, so he can go to school. The trouble is that this means she has to come up with ten pounds every month, so soon she enlists her sisters’ help and together they come up with increasingly elaborate and absurd schemes. The Exiles at Home is not an in-depth look at the neo-colonialist dynamics relationships of this kind can easily slip into, but I did like McKay’s awareness of these complications and potential pitfalls and her occasional commentary. For example, there’s Joseck’s friend’s Mari’s previous sponsor, and how she couldn’t bear the eternal gratitude that was expected of her. Plus:
When Ruth had casually mentioned sponsoring children, Mrs Conroy had seemed to disapprove of the whole scheme. Not that she was reluctant to give money to a good cause, she said, and in fact she and Mr Conroy gave a regular amount each month, deducted straight from Mr Conroy’s salary.
“I didn’t know!” Ruth was surprised.
“But I don’t believe in singling out individual children and expecting them to write grateful letters,” concluded Mrs Conroy firmly. “I shouldn’t like any of you to have to do it. All children have a right to be educated, wherever they live.”
“But I wanted him for a sort of pen-friend,” Ruth said, explaining all this to Naomi, “not to be grateful to me. I didn’t think of that. I wanted to know someone in Africa.”
“Ten pounds by next week,” said Naomi thoughtfully. “We’d better go and see what Rachel and Phoebe have done with their money.”
Privilege is of course not absent from the girls’ relationship with Joseck, but I liked how it nevertheless came across as a human connection. The emotional core of the second book, though, is the girls’ relationship with Toby and Emma, the elderly couple who hire Ruth’s services as a gardener so she can earn her monthly ten pounds. Phoebe’s friendship with nonagenarian Emma is especially touching, in a hilarious and non-saccharine sort of way. They’re a short-tempered little girl and a very old woman who find comfort and delight in the fact that neither one makes allowances for the other’s age — the distancing, kind but often patronising allowances that everybody else seems to make.

The final book, The Exiles in Love, sees the girls succumb to “the family failing” — a tendency to fall in love quickly and rashly. This last volume is structured slightly differently: each chapter is introduced by a short excerpt of dialogue between Ruth and Naomi, who are now adults and are reminiscent about their childhood and teen years. The context of this conversation becomes clear as the story progresses, and it’s a nice send-off to the Conroy sisters. Along the way we get a holiday in France, some new family friends, plenty of Big Grandma appearances, and the kind of adult complexities and misunderstandings everyone persists in believing pass the girls by — only Phoebe, despite being the youngest, is not easily fooled and is not afraid of making this fact known.

These books are not exactly plot-centred, but they are never, ever dull. They’re gentle, humorous (I seriously laughed out loud, which doesn’t happen all that often), perceptive and just wonderfully written, with such economy and such richness of characterisation. Besides, Hilary McKay’s humour is kind, by which I mean that we laugh with the characters and never at them. The laughter doesn’t come at the expenses of her characters’ humanity, and this makes for my favourite sort of comedy.

Lastly, here’s what is probably the main reason why I loved this trilogy: because I’ll never, ever tire of stories centred on girls and in which they’re allowed the full range of humanity — in other words, where “girls are allowed to think dark thoughts, and be dark things.” The Conroy sisters are indomitable brats one moment and compassionate, rabbit- and lobster-rescuing children the next; they’re smart and bookish and surprisingly perceptive at times, but also rash and capable of coming up with one disastrous plan after the next. Above all, they’re complicated and human and have inner lives that deserve to be taken seriously, even as we spend most of our time with them laughing.

Spines of The Exiles, The Exiles at Home and The Exiles in Love by Hilary McKay

If you haven’t yet, do read Hilary McKay. Very few writers, writing in any genre and for any age group, are as satisfying as this.

They read it too: A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy (The Exiles and The Exiles at Home)


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  1. I totally agree with you. I LOVE 'The Exiles'. I feel happy just thinking about them. They are WONDERFUL books and I have laughed out loud many many times whilst reading them. I agree, they re BRILLIANT about girls, which is why my 3 teenagers love them so much and quote remembered scenes back at each other and tell their brother. I must encourage him to read them too - but he has probably read them vicariously because they have been discussed so much by the girls.

  2. I totally agree with you. I LOVE 'The Exiles'. I feel happy just thinking about them. They are WONDERFUL books and I have laughed out loud many many times whilst reading them. I agree, they re BRILLIANT about girls, which is why my 3 teenagers love them so much and quote remembered scenes back at each other and tell their brother. I must encourage him to read them too - but he has probably read them vicariously because they have been discussed so much by the girls.

  3. Oh gosh, The Exiles are new to me and I think I'm going to have to see if I can get them at the library.

  4. I am so blissfully happy that there are so many more Hilary McKay books out there for me to read! Saffy's Angel stole my heart...and I have you to thank for it! Thank you! :)

  5. How did I miss your love for Hilary McKay?? These sound amazing - and the other series does too.

  6. I think I maybe have only read the first two of these books, and not the third one. I was really glad that Hilary McKay put in the bit you quoted about expecting a child to write grateful letters -- as you say, it doesn't address in depth the problems of that kind of charity, but it does at least acknowledge them. And I agree that the connection came across very human. I loved reading Joseck's letters.

    HILARY MCKAY. I wish she were better known. She's one of the best children's book authors I've read since, I don't know, Rumer Godden. Noel Streatfeild. She's that class of writer.

  7. I remember reading Saffy's Angel and Indigo's Star as a teenager. Thank you for a wonderful review, I'm definitely going to check out this trilogy! :)

  8. YAY! Like Jenny I've read the first two and didn't realise there was third until a few years ago, but the ones I have read I adored. I read them over and over and like you laughed out loud (even on re-reads). And your review brought back everything I loved about them. I think Naomi is probably my favourite, but you reminded me why they're all so great (and why Pheobe and Emma's relationship is so wonderful).

    I fully promise to read a Carsson family book this year. And I will keep the promise this time!

  9. I read the first Casson book. One day I really should read more from her. I will probably have to buy them all and just haven't got that far!

  10. This reminds me that I need to read Indigo's Star asap. I'm glad there is another series to look forward to after the Casson family :-)

  11. I guess I'll have to find these. Sounds like I'll wish I had known of them when my children were the age for them.

  12. And now you get to look forward to reading her Little Princess sequel, Wishing for Tomorrow, which is lovely too!

  13. I love "The Exiles". They are a big part of my childhood. I've read and heard the first book so many times, that I still know it by heart. Although I can spot something new everytime I reread or rehear the series. It's still fascinating and thrilling.
    In Germany the series is called "Vier verrückte Schwestern" what could be translated to "four crazy sisters". The title sounded so exciting to me as a child. Thank you, Miss McKay !


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