Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

imageDear Clare, it was very clever of you to think of this book. I promise not to read your diary, I did open it once just to find out the date, but I promise on my honour I didn’t read any more. I promise. By the way, do you think we should tell Emily what’s happening? I’m sure she’s suspicious, so it might be better. But I think you should tell  her, perhaps, not me. How are you managing here? Do you find it very difficult and strange? I don’t think anything important happened today. I will write tomorrow. Yours sincerely, Charlotte.

For Charlotte Makepeace, the first day of boarding school is bewildering.  So many rules, timetables and bells, and hordes of other girls who know just how everything works. She spends her first nght cowered under the bedsheets, wondering how she’ll ever make sense of it all. However, when she wakes up, she’s in the same bed, the same room, the same school, even, but somehow she has travelled 40 years back in time to 1918.

Swapping places with Charlotte is Clare, who with her little sister Emily is being boarded in the school while their father is away fighting in France. Charlotte and Clare alternate between the two time periods each night, never meeting, but communicating using a diary and together trying to keep track of classes, homework and music lessons (Clare is good at the piano but Charlotte is not, and so Clare has to remember to play badly so that it doesn’t cause problems for Charlotte). However, the swap only works when they are sleeping in the same bed, and when ‘Clare’ and Emily are moved to board with a local family, it is in fact Charlotte who is trapped in 1918 and must find a way back to her own time.

When I’m not reading speculative fiction, reading girls’ boarding school stories of one of my favourite guilty pleasures, and Charlotte Sometimes is often mentioned as a classic, so I was looking forward to this one. The mechanic of having the time travel work as a swap is unusual — Clare and Charlotte apparently look so alike that hardly anyone notices they’ve changed, and as Charlotte pretends to be Clare for longer and longer, she starts to question who she really is, leading to some deep and heartfelt passages about the nature of identity.

Any questions of paradoxes are mostly ignored or swept under the carpet, and to be honest, boarding school in 1918 sounds very similar to boarding school in 1958 — it’s probably one of the settings that would cause the least confusion for time travellers (especially poor Clare who has to deal with travelling into the future — at least Charlotte can read history books to get some help). However, the relationship between Charlotte and Clare’s little sister Emily is touching, and some of the descriptions of wartime are pretty brutal. Even though it’s a children’s book, I enjoyed Charlotte Sometimes a lot, and it deserves its place among the canon of better known school stories.

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