Nostalgia Friday: The Watch House, by Robert Westall

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Author’s website
Publication date – 1977

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The dust flew in clouds, making her cough. Anne looked inside the last glass case. More writing. It was moving Balls of fluff being pushed around like tiny mice. More letters appeared as she watched.

“AnHelpAnHelpAnHelp “

“Anne Help”

Who is writing the messages in the dust? What is the story behind the huge skull in the old Watch House?

Alone and unhappy in Garmouth, Anne knows the shadows are following her. Spirits of long-dead sailors who won’t rest. And from behind its empty windows, the Watch House is watching her…

Thoughts: I probably read this book for the first time when I was 12, and thought then that it was a good novel. I had a weak spot for Westall at the time. After all, he used to live not far from my nana, and the place of my grandfather’s garden allottment was mentioned in another of his novels. It seemed almost a family legacy that I read and enjoy his books.

The Watch House takes place in Tynemouth Garmouth, a place which is like Tynemouth in just about every way but the name. It centres around Anne, a girl of unspecified age but probably in her mid early to mid teens. Caught in a bad family situation, she is sent to Garmouth for the summer, where she stays with Prudie and Arthur, caretakers of the Watch House. But admit the legitimate teenage angst and coming of age is a well-done ghost story, one that doesn’t pull any punches and gives credit to the age group the book is intended for by bringing up some truly deep thought and contemplation.

This is the kind of book I look at and think to myself, “This wouldn’t make it today.” Not because it’s bad, but let’s be honest. There are too many novels with the intended age range of “11+” that mention sex, adultery, swearing, violent death, and heated snarky religious bickering between two priests, all all done with a sense of maturity and realism. If you can find books like this, they’re few and far between. But that’s one thing I’ve always found about Westall. He can write with a tone for younger audiences will still treating them as though they’re capable of understanding some of the darker aspects of reality.

Westall should also be praised for managing to cram complex issues into a small number of words. In only a few short paragraphs, you can get a real sense for Anne’s relationship with her mother and father, her own sense of self, and her feelings about spending the summer in Garmouth. You get a real sense of who the characters are without spending pages on introductions, on narrating the backstory, without Anne staring in the mirror and contemplating the colour of her hair. Westall has always been good at saying volumes without saying much at all, and this book is no exception.

As a nostalgic reread, I’d say the Watch House holds up incredibly well. It isn’t a timeless novel, since there are some very dated references in it, but that was also true of it when I first read it, so I can’t fault the book on that. It may throw some new readers off a little bit, but if they can bypass a few odd cultural quirks and focus on the meat of the story and the characters, then there’s no problem at all.

I do have to admit that much of my high opinion, at least when it comes to nostalgia value, may be riding on the fact that I can close my eyes and picture everything in this book so clearly because I’ve been there. Repeatedly. On family vacations. So I’m more than a little biased here, and for someone who didn’t grow in around Tynemouth might not get the same enjoyment and sense of familiarity when reading this book. That being said, though, it is still a good book for its own sake, and there’s no denying that, even if I rip away the gloss of nostalgia. This just happens to raise my own personal opinion of it.

This isn’t the book I would first recommend to anyone looking to experience the full force of Westall’s talent. I’m pretty sure that the majority of people who have read this author will recommend The Machine Gunners, and I’m no exception. But if you are looking for a quick and mature ghost story, then by all means, give this one a look.

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