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By A.L. Kennedy

(Jonathan Cape, £16.99 Sterling)

Alfred Day, former tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber during WW2, is the protagonist of Alison Kennedy’s fifth novel. It is now 1949, and Alfred, only 25 but feeling more like 50, is finding he’s not very good at peace. The only boy in a family of girls, with a drunken, abusive fishmonger father and a doting and doted on mother, the war (or more specifically, the R.A.F., or more exactly still, his flying crew) offered him a previously unimagined camaraderie, and an escape from his rural Staffordshire origins and having to follow his father into his smelly trade. For all the rigid class structure of Britain, reflected in the officer class/ordinary ranks divide of the armed forces, the war was a great leveller, with everyone mucking in together. But look at him now, trying not very successfully to negotiate the readjustment to civilian life, a way of being as an adult that he has never properly known.

He has been working in his friend Ivor’s bookshop in London, although they don’t seem to sell many books. Not that he’s very bothered, since the autodidact Alfred has always been fond of reading. What’s really eating him is numbness, a sense of psychological paralysis occasioned by the loses he has accumulated: his mother, ostensibly felled by a falling roof slate, although Alfred suspects, rightly or wrongly, that his father had something to do with her demise; his crew, since he was the only survivor when his plane was shot down over Hamburg in 1943 on their penultimate 29th bombing mission; and his girlfriend Joyce, a chance encounter during the Blitz, then as now unhappily married to a lieutenant she hardly knew before he was sent off to Malaya, went missing – either dead or imprisoned – who has returned with major trauma (i.e. he never leaves their house). Then Alfred also has his experiences as a German PoW to deal with, not least of which is the death of his friend from the camp, Ringer, who saved him, but whom he failed to save.




So, when the novel opens, we discover he has volunteered as an extra in a prison-camp movie being shot in Germany, trying to find the piece of him that had come adrift in the real prison. He is surrounded by actors playing the war, new and old service men, ‘good’ Germans and displaced persons, and among them are people like him, who won't talk about what happened. Then there are the kind of people he was fighting, like the nasty piece of work that is the Nazi collaborator Vasyl, really Latvian but claiming to be Ukrainian because he thinks this will ease his passage into British residency, whose personal (im)morality, or code of survival, is summed up succinctly in his saying: ‘It’s like this – you kiss your wife, I take away her face – which one of us is more sensible? You hold on to her hand when she can’t feel and then I stop you feeling – which one of us is more sensible? You care about your daughter – I train my dog to fuck your daughter – you still care – which one of us is more sensible?’

The film set affords the opportunity for some arch but telling postmodern irony: ‘Penalty for non-compliance, one hour in the sun with hands up. They’d be filming that next: trembling British arms and British sweat, very dramatic – lots of sympathy you’d get with that – now that it wasn’t happening any more, now that is was a story.’ Kennedy even pushes it as far as having some (real) ex-prisoners trying to tunnel out of their (fake) new camp, unbeknownst to the production crew. Some of this inner circle take Alfred under their wing, offering him a new start, with false black market identity papers and the chance to be someone else, an option Alfred gives some consideration.

The novel, then, is about the crushing weight of guilt, and the redemptive power of love. If that sounds trite, it isn’t meant to. It is also, strangely enough, given its forensic delineation of the darker propensities of human nature, perhaps Kennedy’s most optimistic longer work to date. In the end, Alfred decides to accept his lot, be himself, go back to London, and take a chance on contacting Joyce.

In these homogenised, commodified times, it is increasingly rare to find a writer with both a signature style, and a sensibility (the two are intimately linked), so distinctly their own that they are instantly recognisable upon opening one of their books, and could not be anyone else’s. A.L. Kennedy is such an artist, and Day handsomely extends her already highly impressive achievement in contemporary fiction.

First published in The Sunday Independent













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