As World War II begins, thousands of women and children are evacuated into the British countryside to avoid the coming bombs that will hit the cities harder than anywhere else. Some of them are lucky, like siblings Cecily and Jeremy, and already have family they can stay with (even if Jeremy wants to be treated "as a man" and not a child and stay in London to fight) but others like May aren't as lucky, she's shipped off and only ends up with them after Cecily begs her mother for an evacuee as if she's a puppy or a kitten. But in an odd way May fits in with the family's ancient estate and if it wasn't for her then Cecily and Jeremy would have never pried the story about the crumbling, hidden castle from their uncle and that might be the most important story they will ever hear.
There's a sort of wistfulness to the story which is very characteristic of British children's literature that goes back to the early 1900s but seems to have died out with Harry Potter's more modern popularity of the 90s and in splitting up children's literature into the more specialized middle grade and young adult*. I remember seeing this wistfulness in books like some of Diana Wynne Jones' earlier books and The Dark is Rising series, it was a stylistic leaning and often reflected in the actual story where the characters would come of age and leave behind a more innocent childhood, leaving the mostly absent narrator would feel both glad and sad for them. It doesn't work in every story, I feel like there's this general glorification of innocence when talking about pre WWI/II since the world was hardly innocent then, but it works well in this story since it's not really a metaphor for the world, it's connected to the characters and more strongly to the story within the story.
I'm actually glad that this review got delayed since I otherwise would not have known that the story that Uncle Peregine tells is a version of the "The Princes in the Tower" (Edward and Richard) who were imprisoned just after The War of the Roses (thank you Stuff You Missed In History Class!). I once again admire Hartnett's restraint in not making this story, and the ghosts that the girls encounter, clear-cut similes for the girls lives but rather leaves it as an intersection between the real and the fictional. I believe that the girls really did meet the ghosts, there was nothing in the way the story was written to suggest otherwise, and the more important part is that the girls think they met them as well, that they are living (ish) proof of what Cecily's uncle was cautioning them against, that power can be a great thing or a terrible thing and to remember those caught up without it. That part of the story is much more of a metaphor for World War II than the wistfulness I mentioned and this story is some of the best writing in the book, it works on many different levels and wouldn't have felt out of place in an adult novel just as it didn't feel out of place in a book about children.
It's interesting to see just what three types of characters Hartnett chose for this story. There is Jeremy, the brother who seems to be growing up the right way for the wrong reason; he's motivated by old-fashioned ideas of honor and chivalry so he will be someone who does great things but it's not out of the personal devotion and dedication that we ascribe to truly great people in the world so he comes off as cold instead of inspiring. May is someone who the reader wants to be, a little quiet at first but observant and bold, she is the adventurous one whose been cast into a scary situation and will make the best of it on her own, someone who isn't anti-social but who would rather strike out on her own than rely on the people around her. And Cecily is the person the reader probably is, she's very much a 12 year old where she says something insightful every now and then (that she doesn't even recognize the importance of ) but she's more likely to be a selfish and hasty, a bit scared of adventures that she's not fully in control of and bossy when she is. She doesn't grow up bad however, the story suggests that she too grows up to be an ordinary, happy person despite these early shortcomings since these are things that every kid goes through, not traits they will necessarily cling to later in life which I feel like a lot of stories forget when they try to create character personality conflicts.
This is an extraordinarily well-written book, enough so that I'm tempted to try out Hartnett's other works even though they also all appear to be middle grade. I'm afraid that I might be bored if I read too many middle grade books but her style of prose and grasp on how to tell a story were so great here that I don't think I'll be able to stay away from her work.