Fathom Five (novel)

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Fathom Five by Robert Westall is a children's historical novel set during the Second World War, the sequel to The Machine Gunners. It was first published in 1979.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel reunites some of the characters from The Machine Gunners, specifically Chas McGill, "Cem" Jones and Audrey Parton, whilst introducing the middle-class Sheila as Chas's sometime girlfriend.

Set in 1943, two years after the events of The Machine Gunners, it traces the attempt to uncover a spy in Garmouth.

Major themes[edit]

The characters are now older than in The Machine Gunners, and the themes are appropriate to their age.

The relationship between Chas and Sheila explores all the hope and inexperience of first love. The transition from boy to man is one of the central aspects of the novel. Chas is ultimately faced with a decision a mature adult would find daunting.

Whilst The Machine Gunners tends to focus on the bombing and fear of invasion in 1941, Fathom Five fleshes out the world war. The ongoing effects of four years of rationing are covered (examples: Chas putting a hole in his trousers; the items brought by the different protagonists to the beach picnic; the Ministry of Food invitation to "Try our delicious Woolton pie")—a not-highly regarded meat-free pie. There is reference to the diaspora that has fled to Britain including Scandinavian fishermen, the Maltese underclass and Jewish pawnbrokers. It is through one of these that Chas encounters a widow of the Arctic convoys, which puts a distinctly human perspective on war. In addition the sheer banality of continuing war is alluded to, and a sense of late war fatigue which began to grip Britain at this time; reference is made to miners striking for better pay, and shipyard workers stealing iron rations from lifeboats leading to torpedoed sailors starving.

As the plot develops the author explores the social forces at work in 1943 Britain. Chas, the son of a gas fitter, embarks on a tentative relationship with Sheila, the daughter of a prominent local magistrate. Chas is initially seduced by "adults who you could discuss T. S. Eliot with", but the relationship is not approved of by Sheila's parents. In the end it is Chas's father who clarifies matters. The McGill family bookshelf consists of a shelf of Left Book Club titles including, we are led to understand, Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Chas becomes an avid reader of these and starts to understand the society in which he lives.

The book is largely unsentimental. The Maltese of the Low Street are described in pungent detail as petty criminals and vice merchants although Chas does establish a friendship with some of them. This is a development of the theme of maturity and also Chas's growing sense of political identity informed by what he has read in his father's books. No mention is made of the heroic resistance that had so recently been underway on the island of Malta, and the reader is left with a lingering sense of unjustified mistrust about one character until late in the novel.