‘The Custard Boys’ – John Rae

“Cowardy, cowardy custard,

Can’t take your mustard.”

 I was drawn to this book when I saw it on NetGalley because of its gorgeous yellowy cover and its title, ‘The Custard Boys.’ It made me think of my twin sons who are custard freaks and would eat it for breakfast, dinner and lunch if we let them! However, the boys in the story are far from the sweet-toothed, innocent ‘custard boys’ of my own home… the boys in the book are cruel, vicious, aggressive, blood-thirsty creatures, created by the adults and the time they live in.


We learnt of the jargon of the wardroom and the mess, the laconic understatement of death in which a man was never killed; he “bought it,” or his “number came up.” And with these prep-school catchphrases the survivors diminished death, relegating it to the level of a sporting setback… we were left in no doubt that war was great fun; a tough yet ennobling game.”

This book is set in a small, village in England during the second World War. The boys in the story are would-be heroes, itching to be old enough to become soldiers and share in the glory of being labelled ‘heroes.’ Into this troublesome mix arrives Mark, a stranger into a village of strangers (a number of the children living there are evaccues) who befriends John, the main narrator of the story. John is tolerated by his peers at best and his friendship with the foreign Mark further alienates him from the gang. To prove his loyalty to the ‘custard boys,’ John agrees to things that you just know aren’t going to end well for anyone.

“Thousands of years ago God told us not to kill, and in all that time we have made only a minute effort to obey Him. We are still wild animals with clothes on.”

This book is a very uncomfortable read and you can see the ending coming a mile off. At times, the language and prose is so beautiful that it shadows the sense of foreboding that is present throughout the book and you forget the darkness of the subject of the story. This makes for a very interesting, thought-provoking read. It reminded me of ‘The Lord of the Flies’, which I haven’t read for over twenty years but I can still remember how I felt reading it and that’s how I felt reading ‘The Custard Boys’ – worried and afraid for the ‘weaker’ boys of the pack, and helpless in stopping things from moving towards their inevitable end.

“We were a pack of young wolves hunting in the bleak hills of boredom… only by seeking danger could we avenge our day-dreams that had been condemned to march in an imaginary war.”

 Despite the darkness of the book and its genre (I don’t tend to read ‘war’ books), I did enjoy it although it was a far cry from what I had pictured in my mind as to what it was going to be like. Since finishing the book, I’ve found out that it was originally published in the early ‘60s. This explains how some of the more grittier and gruesome details of the story have been censored. Had this book been written today, I imagine it would have been a lot more graphic and even more confronting for the reader. Maybe the more-subtle approach to the tension, tragedy and turmoil of the book made it all the more troublesome to read as your imagination has to work harder and the unknown is more sinister and spine-chilling.

Thank you to NetGalley and ‘thistlepublishing.co.uk’ for this copy to read and review.


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