The House Opposite by Barbara Noble
A book written about life in London in 1943 will probably make some reference to the Blitz. In this powerful novel the bombing is a theme, constantly in the background, explaining and justifying what the characters do, how they live. There is no melodrama, but an acceptance that life is affected, that fear affects people in different ways, that people behave differently when there is real danger. This exceptional book has been made available by the brilliant Dean Street Press, as chosen to be part of the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow series. Connie Willis in her Introduction points out that Noble gets the Blitz right, in the facts, the atmosphere and the little details. I found it an incredible read, documenting the telling experience, the way that people fight to get on with their lives in the best way that they can, subject to the same emotions as people everywhere at any time. It is a book that speaks of first hand experience, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book.
Elizabeth is a secretary who is having an affair with her married boss. Alex’s wife and children are in the country, evacuated away from the nightly bombing raids that give a certain desperation to Elizabeth’s thoughts about the man who she is secretly so attached to, the man she calls on the phone to check has survived, before adopting her role as the efficient Miss Simpson. Her loving father, solicitor and warden, has a huge potential for understanding, for coping, but her mother is terrified of the raids, fearful of being alone, and discovers some comfort in concealed alcohol. Elizabeth is coping, but feels a sort of guilt about Bob, a soldier who devotes his precious leave to her, unaware of her true feelings. Meanwhile Owen, who lives in the house opposite, is an insecure teenager who recoils from an flippant statement from her, that he is “Only that pansy Cathcart boy”. At eighteen he is wounded by her dismissal, but also by his own reactions, aware of his devotion to an older cousin, Derek, who was a schoolboy hero and protector, now in the glamorous air force, training to be a pilot. Derek was the shining sportsman, the instinctive leader, whereas Owen was the younger, bookish and only son of a mother who nurses a life changing secret. As he struggles with his feelings, he is fascinated by the damage, the excitement of a city in peril, the physical evidence of which could be collected. While Elizabeth does not fear for her own physical safety, she knows that others ar losing everything and injured in horrifying ways, while she has accepted a secret relationship that brings her little joy and knows is tainted by a lack of a future. Alex’s claim to fear about the raids is set alongside the fact that when they leave London for a snatched weekend, they fear discovery “They were both of them secretly apprehensive all the time”. The bombing is almost a relief – it frees Elizabeth from worrying about a future that may never come for her.
There is so much to admire about this book, the grim tolerance of destruction, the curiosity of where the bombs had fallen, the passing on of rumour and fact. The relief of surviving another night is set against the realities of others’ probable losses. It reveals and explains how people had to carry on with their own lives against constant uncertainty, how fear became a constant, tolerated as the immediate had to be dealt with on a daily basis. It is a revelation of how people truly responded to the times, and how life continued. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in first hand accounts of how people lived in a novel written and originally published without the benefit of knowing what the future would hold.