Reviewed by Wendy Smith
Sunday, February 10, 2008
By A.L. Kennedy
Knopf. 274 pp. $24
One of Britain's most searching and provocative observers of contemporary life, Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy turns her sharp eye in a new direction in her sixth novel, which won the Costa Book Award last month. Day tells the story of an English tail gunner who flew 28 bombing missions over Germany before being shot down in 1943 and spending the rest of World War II in a POW camp. Alfred Day describes himself as "biddable and sensible and ordinary," but the tapestry of his memories woven by Kennedy's expert hands reveals a complex array of thoughts and feelings.
Six years after being taken prisoner, Alfred considers returning to Germany, to be an extra in a film about POWs. "You know it'll send you round the bend," says the incredulous proprietor of the bookshop where he works in London, but Alfred thinks that returning might help him "tunnel right through to the place where he'd lost himself . . . work out what was missing, maybe even put it back."
As Pat Barker did in her searing Regeneration trilogy about World War I, Kennedy limns the odyssey of a man traumatized by the hideous realities of combat, but in a dense, modernist style quite unlike Barker's sober realism. The past invades the present in a narrative that unfolds entirely in Alfred's consciousness. Once again, he sees members of his crew blown to bits, human beings reduced to lumps of flesh and blood on the floor of their aircraft. On leave in his Staffordshire hometown, he looks at the houses flattened by bombs and knows he's done the same in Germany. And not just to military targets. "That's another field of Nazi cows gone west, then," remarks the navigator during one raid, alluding with black humor to what the crew members try not to say outright: Winning the war means ravaging the landscape and killing civilians. Alfred is a civilian now, no longer a starving prisoner, but he still stockpiles chocolate and bread. "This was how you discovered that you were an animal -- you caught yourself hoarding, savage, feeding: mind shut."
Yet Alfred's recollections show the war offering him hope as well. He's a working-class boy, only 15 in 1939, and he knows he'll enlist as soon as he can. He feels guilty about leaving his beloved, stoic mother at the mercy of his brutal father, but he burns to escape the "school where he wasn't intended to learn," the teacher who "thought I was getting above myself," a world in which someone like Alfred isn't supposed to read Shakespeare.
In some of the novel's most moving scenes, Kennedy faultlessly captures the brusque camaraderie of the bomber crew, men from vastly different backgrounds knitted together by a love so profound it can never be put in words. The class distinctions of a nation still mired in social injustice mean nothing to them. "They were building something like a family -- the kind they'd have asked for, if they'd ever had a choice," Kennedy writes. "We'll need things to be fairer when this is all done with, people won't stand for anything else," says Joyce, the woman Alfred meets in an air-raid shelter while on leave in London. Despite the looming absence of her husband (overseas in uniform), they fall in love. Joyce embodies for Alfred the promise of a better England after the war. In the POW camp, devastated by the loss of his comrades, he treasures her letters as his sole link to the new life he had been forging in the shadow of death: "One person knew you in the world and loved what they knew. . . . Not just your crew self -- the man you might become."
On the movie set, Alfred confronts the despair that has enveloped him ever since Joyce's last letter broke off their affair. A vicious Latvian refugee who plays a Nazi officer unashamedly describes his real-life participation in a mass murder to Alfred. Vasyl's sadistic monologue voices the bitterest knowledge Alfred took from war, and his deepest fears about what it made him. People are "things to hold blood," Vasyl says. But "we don't die. People like you and me, Alfred. It's the other ones that die. We kill them." As for a better England, Alfred can't even get the head of the local Displaced Persons camp to stop this war criminal from settling in England once the film completes shooting in Germany. The exhausted nation needs immigrants, an administrator explains, and if "we take in lads like your Vasyl, who were misled in their youth . . . we live in a country which stays Christian and white."
"Maybe I never did exactly know what I was fighting for," Alfred thinks, "but it . . . wasn't that."
It's a desolate moment, and Kennedy's unsparing text allows for the possibility that Alfred will respond with the violence we know he's capable of. Acknowledging the shadows that lurk in every heart, this tenaciously hopeful writer affirms that self-knowledge and transcendence can arise from the most unpromising circumstances -- which is not to say that they will, merely that the possibility exists. *
Wendy Smith reviews books for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Her essays on theater, music and literature have appeared in the American Scholar.