Book review: The Seeing by Diana Hendry

We know immediately that something is wrong. Diana Hendry’s new young adult novel, The Seeing, opens with the words: “The pills don’t help.” Images of fire and destruction follow, along with a genuine sense of urgency – and we haven’t even reached the bottom of the first page of the prologue.

The Seeing

by Diana Hendry

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Bodley Head, 178pp, £10.99

Set in 1956, in a version of the north-western seaside village where Hendry grew up, The Seeing is almost claustrophobic – despite the nearness of the ocean. When Lizzie, a nice girl from an upwardly mobile family, meets wildchild Natalie and her younger brother Phillip, she enters a world filled with dread and secrecy, a world where little boys have visions of “left-over Nazis” (LONs), and children take it upon themselves to make the world safer by eradicating them.

The truth is, of course, far more complicated. The Seeing refers not just to Phillip’s second sight – a gift that’s increasingly called into question as time progresses – but to Lizzie’s artistic aspirations, which are encouraged by Hugo, a refugee from the Nazis who spends every summer at the seaside, painting.

Hendry builds the suspense cleverly, peeling back the layers slowly, revealing her characters as if in a striptease. Lizzie is initially enthralled by Natalie, but as her knowledge deepens, and her emotional intelligence matures, she grows increasingly wary even as she gets more deeply enmeshed in her friend’s paranoid delusions. Here is a chilling depiction of how easy it is for hysteria to take hold, and witch hunts to build momentum.

Through the character of Hugo, Hendry puts forward philosophical ideas for young readers to ponder. Letters to his beloved sister offer an adult’s perspective which, while limited, reminds us that the mounting tension belongs to the children alone. He writes: “Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between seeing and imagining.” Watching the children explore a rickety, condemned pier, he is inclined to sketch them, but worries that he ought to be responsible, and shoo them away to keep them safe. “It’s that old dilemma, isn’t it – art or action?”

The tense storyline will keep readers turning the pages, but the questions raised in The Seeing will keep their minds ticking over long after they’ve reached the end.