No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 13, 2008

#42: Under an English Heaven -- Robert Radcliffe

...there was another, much bigger, much closer, ear-poppingly loud. He felt its shock, its heat pass right through him, like a wave, the ground shuddering beneath his feet. At the same instant, a house at the end of the street jumped between its neighbours, sprang upwards and outwards amid a huge cloud of blood-red dust and smoke. The cloud rose, lifting into the sky before him. There it hung like a vast filthy curtain, before sinking slowly to the rubble-strewn ground where it spread, rolling, wave-like, down the road towards him. He saw that the bombed house had gone. Vanished. Even though its neighbours appeared untouched. (p. 233)

I picked this up from a stack of free books in a local church hall, mostly as atmosphere-research for a writing project set immediately after WW2. (See also A World to Build).

Under an English Heaven is a well-paced and evocative novel of life on and near a USAF base in East Anglia in 1943. Radcliffe is a pilot, and he knows his military history: there's a heartfelt critique of some ill-advised command decisions here. But mostly it's the story of various lost souls searching for meaning, home, a sense of belonging: Billy Street, the London evacuee, who knows how to make the most of his new home; John Hooper, sole survivor of one bomber crew, leading another; schoolteacher Heather Garrett, whose husband is missing in Burma ... The secondary characters are as vividly drawn as the protagonists, and their experiences are exceptionally vivid: the cloud of orange brick-dust hanging where a bombed house stood, the prostitutes in Piccadilly, the cramped and icy conditions on board a B17 bomber, the children asking "Got any gum, chum?" of every American serviceman they meet.

And Radcliffe shows the birth of a team, the strengthening bonds between the crew of Misbehavin' Martha: the war-weariness, the camaraderie, the affection. Radcliffe's descriptions of aerial combat have a real immediacy, and his evocative descriptions of still, misty East Anglian mornings remind me of home. But Hooper's care for his crew (and his 'plane), and their mutual respect, made this more than just another war novel. Hooper, the broken hero trying to do his duty as well as what's right, sick of war but in love with the sky, may be a type: but he's a very real and rounded character, and I cared what happened to him.

Not all the endings are happy, but they are Right.

Radcliffe's second novel, Upon Dark Waters (Royal Navy, WW2), is on its way to me ...

He sits, relaxed and comfortable in his seat at the top of his empty aeroplane. They are both spent, both finished. Spiritually, mechanically, it is the same thing. But they have accomplished with dignity that which has been asked of them, and are now free to travel the last few miles together ... Unencumbered is how he pleases, suddenly. Empty. Stripped bare. He pulls the headphones from his head. (p. 410)

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