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The Red Shoe by Ursula Dubosarsky

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Turn to this for a brilliantly rich, intelligent and surprising period piece for the 10-14 age bracket.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: August 2015
Publisher: Walker Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781406358742

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They may be quite far apart, but three houses in a row in the rural suburbs of 1950s Sydney contain some incredibly unusual people. In one, a solitary old man of very few words, shuffling to the end of his days, but brandishing a Japanese sword he's purloined after WWII, and with a gun in the corner of his lounge. In the middle, a family of five, with a father figure suffering from PTSD due to the same war, a mother feeling friendless and alone in the isolated time and location, and their three daughters – one of whom has given up on school after an alleged nervous breakdown, the middle one who barely speaks more than the neighbour, and Matilda, our key interest, who likes the idea of spies, and has an imaginary friend who came out of the radio. The third house however might be where the most interesting people live – after all, it had been empty, but now the luxurious building is home to several shady men in suits, who turned up out of the blue in luxury cars, and with at least one gun of their own…

This is a brilliant book, whose plot is definitely for the reader to discover. It has so much in it – I could say it is about the fallout of War and the development of the Cold War that replaced it, and I would only be partly right. I could say the household with its three daughters has a part-time sixth member, and sure, that's key, too. A lot of characters here have their growing-up moment, but in ways so much more interesting and realistic than a host of other books bother with to give us the turning point to their leads.

That realism comes from echt newspaper cuttings, grounding the story in national events that certainly we here in the UK would never know about, as well as giving us the lie that these are mere fictional constructs. These are real people on these pages, and by not merely giving us things from Matilda's point of view the book opens out more, so we appreciate its depths even more. Delightfully, many of those depths are only covertly given to us – several times we're made aware of things by what the book reveals through omitting to actually tell us. Sure, the imaginary friend is on hand to point out some truths to Matilda, and therefore us, but we're also left to ourselves to work out that, for example, the word 'hotel' here is definitely a euphemism.

This then is more intelligent than many books for this audience – I would put it at anywhere from ten and up, so valuable an entertainment could it be for the adult reader. It's richer, deeper and a whole lot more surprising – the ultimate truths both startling in their severity yet fully understandable and in keeping. It is so much more than what it appears to be – yes, it is about the girl and the assumption that spies are next door, but there's so much more to it than that. There is a lot more to it than many books you will read this year. So why on earth has it taken nine whole years to get a first UK publication? It's written in English, people – you don't need to translate Australian novels. The fact that but for chance – and the good people at Walker Books – I and many others would probably miss out on this is startling. If Ms Dubosarsky's other volumes are of this quality, then whatever their age range, they deserve to be on our bookstore shelves now. Having said that, in light of how brilliant this book is, I do kind of doubt if they could be.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Ash Road by Ivan Southall is another brilliant lost Australian novel for this age range, actually written in the time as opposed to being constructed as a historical piece. The only other work we've seen from the author at hand is for a much younger audience. Twilight by William Gay is the other side of the world, but the same time frame.

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