Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2011

Day, by A.L. Kennedy

Even though I’ll soon be celebrating the 50th anniversary of my arrival here in Australia, I still feel an inordinate sense of British pride in the WW2 achievements of the RAF.  Those young men who took to the skies against Nazism are heroes to me, as they were to beleaguered Britain, fighting alone while the rest of Europe had capitulated and her American allies were still clinging to isolationism.  As everyone knows, the casualty rate was shocking – while bomber crews had a better chance than the heroic pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain,  more than one in two of the Bomber Command crews died.  As Churchill said in his famous speech

Source: Wikipedia

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain…                            (Source: Wikipedia)

These stirring words notwithstanding, the young men of those bomber crews were dealing in death.  They knew that they had a poor chance of surviving for very long, and that if they did survive they had every chance of losing all their friends.  They also knew that they themselves were killing large numbers of the enemy.  At an age when they should have been falling in love, setting up house and bringing up a family they were bonding instead with other young men who were likewise risking their lives to rain death and destruction on others.  They suffered grief and loss when their  friends died; they felt survivor guilt; and they were plagued with remorse for the civilian deaths they were inflicting.  The psychological burden must have been extraordinary, no less so after the war.

The acclaimed British author A.L.Kennedy has taken this premise to ask the question: what was it like for one of these surviving airmen in the aftermath?  In her latest novel Day, she explores the tortured mind of Alfred Day, former RAF gunner and tailman who leaves his postwar job in a bookshop to work as an extra on a POW film in Germany.  It is indeed a strange thing to do.

Told in fragments that represent the way Alfie tries to suppress memory and come to terms both with his past and his present, the story traces his reasons for volunteering, his pathological refusal to form relationships other than with his crew, his fear of his own violence, his superstitious reckoning of the number of ‘ops’ undertaken, his suicidal tendencies, and his awed frisson of hope that someone might find him lovable.   His memories – of the gruesome deaths of his crew; of beatings in the POW camp; of starvation before the liberation; and of the cruel death of his strange mate Ringer – are juxtaposed with the incomprehension of those who had not experienced the same things.

The second person narration is perfect for conveying Alfie’s desperate attempts to accept that lack of understanding – because what else could he do but accept it? He has to  learn to come to terms with the cynicism of postwar Britain, with its ‘brown linoleum’ austerity, with the loss of hope about a new social order, and with the knowledge that some responsible for war crimes would live unpunished in their midst.

As you’d expect, all the central characters in this novel are damaged.  Ivor, the embittered conscientious objector with a ruined face that attracts women who briefly find him noble, has nothing to look forward to.  Joyce, the married woman Alfie meets in a raid during the Blitz, shares his fear of being with other people.  With a husband missing in the Pacific War, she inhabits a marital no-man’s-land, with an on-again, off-again ring on her finger, feeling guilty about loyalty to a husband she didn’t love and  who may never return.  And then Alfie puts her through the same situation when he is shot down and taken prisoner in Germany and she doesn’t know whether he has survived or not.

It’s an emotionally charged story, with a powerful climax.  I thought it was brilliant.

Author: A.L. Kennedy
Title: Day
Publisher: Anansi, 2007
ISBN: 9780887848087
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. Wow, what an amazing review. I just have to read this book after reading your review. Thank you

  2. this sounds great I read the non fiction fighter boys ,one my great uncles ran away to canada and joined there airforce just so he could fly ,what a great book many thanks lisa for highlighting it ,all the best stu

    • Stu, it was Tom Cunliffe who put me on to it with his review of The Blue Book. I couldn’t get that one from the library, so I brought this one home instead.
      Cheers
      Lisa


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