When Fishes Flew: the story of Elena’s war
Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by George Butler
Harper Collins Children’s Books
The first novel for a couple of years from storyteller extraordinaire Michael Morpurgo is well worth the wait. With three time settings and two locations, the stories of Ellie and Nandi weave together ancient history and myth, contemporary life and World War Two experiences.
As the story opens Nandi, who lives with her parents in Melbourne, Australia, thinks of herself as Greek. Her father’s family came from Ithaca, the Greek island that is still home to her beloved great aunt Ellie.
Until fairly recently Aunt Ellie was a regular visitor to Melbourne but now she’s become too old (and troubled by the impact of flying on global warming) to make the journey. Nandi misses her greatly, especially those wonderful tales from Greek history and mythology she’d tell whenever she visited. Now Nandi must do the visiting, she resolves.
So, as soon as she’s left school and saved sufficient money, Nandi travels to Ithaca; (what happens is told in the form of her journal called ‘My Odyssey’).
However, when she finally reaches her aunt’s home, Ellie isn’t there, hasn’t been seen for a month and nobody, not even her special friend Maria, knows where she’s gone. We readers can’t help but share Nandi’s sadness but as she sits writing her diary one day she ‘hears’ a voice. A voice that seems to be calling her, beckoning her to take the plunge and dive into shoals of fish that spin around the end of the jetty. One fish though, isn’t like the others, this one is a silver flying fish and needs saving, so Nandi must take the plunge. Into the water she goes and rescues the fish.
It’s through this creature, (Proteus in another form) with which she forms a friendship, that she learns the amazing, unimaginable story of her great aunt: ‘a modern Greek hero, a hero of today and yesterday and tomorrow’ as the fish tells her.
Truly that fish was right: I felt tears welling up as I read the last entry in Nandi’s journal written ten years on from the main part.
Totally gripping (I read it a single sitting) is this tale of love, courage and rescue, of personal discovery and belonging, that will remain with readers long after they’ve put the book down.
George Butler’s black and white illustrations too will stay in your mind; it’s amazing how he imbues them with the spirit of myth, of mystery and of love.