Three Weddings and a Proposal by Sheila O’Flanagan – a woman must consider her options in contemporary Dublin

Three Weddings and a Proposal by Sheila O’Flanagan 

Delphine’s story is at the heart of this contemporary novel which deals with a woman’s choices. On one level she is a successful woman, an Executive assistant to Conrad Morgan, a multimillionaire businessman. Her relationship with her boss is one of devotion “I never want him to be disappointed. He depends on me to deliver”. He is the head of an investment firm, moving and growing other people’s money and he is remarkably successful. Delphine is first seen buying a bracelet for his young and beautiful girlfriend Bianca, a fabulous thirtieth birthday present with beauty and history. On the other hand, Delphi as she is known to her extensive family, has no permanent boyfriend, or husband, an empty if wonderful house, a career which takes her on amazing trips around the world. She has female friends, but it soon emerges that she cannot find a plus one for her brother’s wedding. This book looks at, through Delphine’s eyes, how women think of their work, their careers and relationships. Her voice is of a woman who wonders if she has it all, indeed, whether she wants everything. Lively, funny and realistic, this is a story of  a woman whose family has expectations of marriage as the route to happiness, who has business acumen if not ambition, and has to consider in a relatively short time her options. I really enjoyed it and found it an enthralling read. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this contemporary novel. 

The book opens as Delphine is trying to buy a bracelet for some £100,000 while coping with the demands of her brother to let him know the name of her plus one for his wedding. She comes from a large family in Dublin, where it is important to live close to each other in all senses. Delphine’s singleness is a cause for concern for her family, and the nature of her relationship with her demanding boss is perhaps misunderstood. A law graduate, her successful career has been built on arranging life for Conrad, making sure he is at all his meetings well prepared, his business and charitable interests well organised. Although not earning money directly for the company, she eases the way for Conrad to earn fantastic amounts for investors and himself. She likes his wife Martha, the ultimate executive’s wife, making a home for him and the children and entertaining contacts suitably. More recently Conrad has found a much younger girlfriend, and while Delphine has met her and quite enjoys her company, she knows that Conrad’s lifestyle has changed. An unpredicted event means that Delphine must consider everything, her relationships with past boyfriends, her family’s expectations for her. She realises that men’s and women’s attitudes to their careers are so different  that it can be difficult to understand where they overlap. She also realises several things about herself, if only how she reacts to pressures that she could have never foreseen.

This book has much to say about women’s lives in a post – pandemic world. It speaks of their fear of missing out compared with their career progress, the pressure from well meaning family and friends to “settle”, and the real need to find their own way. It shows real insight, a powerful view of women’s lives through fiction, a strong voice in the face of discrimination against women in the workplace despite their progress towards equality. It is entertaining and meaningful, a real dose of reality amongst the humour and personal crisis. The writing takes the reader along, cleverly posing and answering questions, and I recommend it as a vividly written novel of a woman’s life and choices. 

Love and Miss Harris by Peter Maughan – the Company of Fools theatre group takes to the road

Love and Miss Harris by Peter Maughan 

A bus, a Rolls Royce and a huge heap of playbills go ahead of a troupe of actors as they travel across the south of post war England in this lively tale of people and a play. Peter Maughan has constructed a “Company of Fools” in the first of a series of books with great promise. This book features the memorable Titus Llewellyn-Gwynne as he tries to put a play on, the splendidly named “Love and Miss Harris”, aided and abetted by a cast including Jack, a war veteran who has a talent for trouble. This is a terrific ensemble piece set in a world of seedy boarding houses, damaged theatres and dodgy deals, of faded stars and last hopes. There is a threat of more than poor audiences running through the book, as a self appointed gangster has taken offence at Jack and is using all his resources to track him down with his incompetent employees. This lively tale of fantastic characters all pulling together to ensure that the show must go on is a really entertaining and engaging novel, and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The book begins with Titus, as usual dressed in a selection of theatrical wardrobe clothes including a useful sword stick, discovers that Reuben ‘Books’ Kramer’s potential backing for a new show is not forthcoming. Jack Savage, actor with bad memories of hand to hand fighting in France, usefully thumps Reuben and thereby starts his vendetta. While Titus is grateful, the removal of the funding leaves his dreams, and that of his associate Dolly without any hope of putting on a play. Out of a London fog appears George, otherwise known as Lady Devonaire, whose life’s ambition is to put on the play she has written, “Love and Miss Harris” with enough money to invest. She is disappointed to hear that Titus’ theatre where he lives is not in a state to put on a play. However, he has an idea, with a small cast and a minimum of production staff they could tour the small towns of the south of England. Jack Savage is cast as one of the male leads, along with a young actress called Lizzie. An ex-film star who has retired owing to an alcohol problem is also recruited to give a real star quality, and George insists on joining the party with her large dog Gus. Her aristocratic friend provides some support, and the group leaves London in George’s Rolls Royce and a repurposed double decker bus. Playing in small places with crooked managers and variable accommodation, it is quite an adventure, especially with Jack’s wandering eye and undoubted attractions. Meanwhile in London Reuben is searching for Jack, while a Chinese issue is also brewing.

There are some lovely period details in this book, as British towns and people recover from the effects of the War, as well as the theatrical problems that afflict the running of the play as it meets with success and challenges. Events in London centring around Reuben’s desire for revenge become increasingly surreal, and involve a young woman who has cause to reconsider her options. I really enjoyed this book with its fascinating characters and carefully described settings, its postwar atmosphere and gentle humour. It is using some established situations to set this book firmly in its era, and it is always lively and well paced. I recommend this book as a jolly read and a great start  to a new series.

Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes – A 1942 novel of waiting for war reprinted in the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series

Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes

This is a novel of the fictionalised memories of a man sent to France and Belgium in the very early days of the Second World War. Originally published in 1942, the details of Rhodes’ memories had to be changed in some respects because the War was continuing and names had to be concealed. Written within a couple of years of events, without the benefit of hindsight of how the war would proceed let alone finish, this is a vivid picture of a young officer’s experiences on the eve of a new type of warfare. Now reprinted in the excellent Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series with an informative Introduction by Alan Jeffreys, this novel has a “quality which differentiates literature from reporting” according to the author Elizabeth Bowen. Most of the book is taken up with an account of the months before the conflict actually began, and covers Rhodes’ activities in finding sleeping quarters for the men of his division in various places, then obtaining necessary supplies for the work that the engineers had to do. It is therefore filled with memorable characters who are variously concerned with the potential hostilities or are confident that the Germans will not attack. When it becomes obvious that the invasion of France is imminent, it is not revealing too much to say that the tempo of the book changes. The champagne which had been freely consumed, the convivial evenings spent with the locals over fine food and the promises of peace give way to sudden departures and roads filled with refugees. It becomes matter of fact as the path is taken to Dunkirk, and the desperation of those awaiting rescue.

This is a book of men and very few women who are preparing for War with clear memories of the trenches and losses of the all too recent “Great War”. Rhodes himself admits that some of his alcohol consumption is fuelled by the fear that he too will be sucked into the agonising battles and horrific trenches that had filled France within living memory. This book is a powerful testimony of the sort of life lived during the “Bore” or “Phoney” War before the Dunkirk evacuation. It was a time of waiting, preparation and confusion when it was still desperately hoped that there would not be a repeat of the fighting that had killed and injured so many in France. It is far from a book of sophisticated battle stories and military memoirs; instead it presents a series of characters who are trying to carry on with the shadow of war over them. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this fine book.    

This book begins with the realisation that war is really on the way in September 1939. Entering the army as an officer, there is only a relatively brief time before Rhodes is sent to France in charge of the advance party, together with sealed maps and a trail of clues that will lead to the towns and villages where he must find places for the officers and men to sleep. He records the problems of getting on with those he has to work and live, the other officers and their idiosyncrasies. He learns about the French attitudes to soldiers taking space in their houses, he describes how businessmen hope there will be quick money to be made from the British Army who they believe to be backed up by the Bank of England. He meets mainly well intentioned people who are resigned to strangers in their midst, and the narrative is a lively account of the people he meets and the sometimes exasperating situations he finds himself in. When the Germans sweep through several European countries and begin to enter France, after bombing many places that they regard as legitimate targets, it becomes obvious that most of the defensive preparations that Rhodes and the British forces have made have been ineffective. The battle to survive is now begun, and Dunkirk is the only option. 

This is an incredibly readable book which maintains a lively pace throughout. It is full of the immediacy of a strange almost pre war atmosphere, yet the transition to real danger is well handled. I recommend this book to those who enjoy reading first hand accounts of life during this period, written and published in the heat of a new style of conflict by a skilled and experienced author.  

The Other Times of Caroline Tangent by Ivan D Wainewright – a book of music, time travel and people’s lives.

The Other Times of Caroline Tangent by Ivan D Wainewright

A list of music concerts that a fan would have loved to attend. Early Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix and others.  Memorable festivals – Knebworth, Glastonbury, significant moments in music history. For those committed to following popular music in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first could come up with an impressive list of concerts that would have been beyond exciting to experience at first hand. Jon and Caroline come up with such a list, but instead of just wishing, Jon has invented a time machine that enables them to temporarily leave suburban life for the site of musical events that made history. It is an incredible idea, and makes this almost seem like a fantasy novel, but in fact it is a contemporary novel that feels completely reasonable. Firstly, Caroline in particular is seen in the context of friends and life as an artist which seems everyday. She has memories with Jon of events which changed their lives and are especially realistic. Secondly, there is much about the care they must take not to allow anyone to know what they are doing , even those who are similarly obsessed with music. Thirdly, there is what they call the butterfly effect, of the risk of a seemingly small action they commit while in the past has a massive effect on the future to come. 

Despite the fantastic idea at the centre of this novel, it really emerges as a novel of people in relationships in 2021 rather than science fiction. It also shows a deep understanding and affection for the great popular music events of the past which made me wonder which concerts I would love to witness. The research into the simple logistics of attending a concert in a different time and place is impressive, including the problems of obtaining the physical money needed as well as the problems of finding a place to appear and disappear near enough to the venue in the correct clothing. This is such a well thought out and researched book which flows beautifully around the people and events that I really enjoyed. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book. 

The book opens with a glimpse into Caroline and Jon in Paris, October 1935.They are revelling in the music, the musicians that they have only heard of but now can see and hear, and the wine that would have been so expensive except that they are paying 1930s prices with resources from 2021. They are fully in the place and time, and yet know they can return into their own lives when they wish, only having been away from where they are expected to be for a matter of moments.  The reader encounters a group of close friends that surround Caroline and Jon, each with their own lives and concerns. Caroline is especially close to Bee, while Andrew is another music fan, but can get quite aggressive with Jon’s enthusiasm for vinyl records. They have a history of partnership but also some difficult confrontations. The next few months are significant ones for Caroline and Jon; they have decisions to make not only limited to which concert to secretly attend.

This is a really good read which has real suspense as well as posing some fascinating questions to readers. It is a well written and extremely cleverly plotted novel which I read avidly in order to discover what would happen next. It combines a real sense of atmosphere for the various times and places involved, as well as characters who maintain their roles throughout the narrative. The elements of time travel, music events and people’s lives and choices come together to make an irresistible read which is unusual and fascinating.  

Talk Bookish to Me by Kate Bromley – A Romantic Novelist in search of inspiration?

Talk Bookish to Me by Kate Bromley | Waterstones

Talk Bookish to Me by Kate Bromley 

Kara is stuck. A successful romance novelist, her deadline is getting nearer and she has no inspiration. This is a book which successfully combines a story of a tricky contemporary romantic encounter with extracts from an historical novel under construction, the success of which reflects the progress of Kara’s relationship. This is a book about a writer’s muse, about how the inspiration for writing comes, and the process of writing drafts.It is also amusing, featuring a dog called Duke and characters with a snappy turn for dialogue. For a book of romantic fiction the characters have a certain depth as they cope with memories of the past as well as hopes for the future. A major part of the book is centred around a wedding, so there is a certain romantic theme whatever the main characters choose to do. Kara is a young woman who has fond memories of Ryan, but also some guilt issues. Her immediate family, her mother and sister, have their own agendas, and she has some close female friends who are both challenging and supportive. I enjoyed the dialogue in this book which made it a lively and often funny read, which is a good thing when so much fiction is often a bit miserable. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this good hearted book. 

We first see Kara in a lift announcing that she is maid of honour at the forthcoming wedding while trying to cope with a “Great-Dane-sized gift basket” which is “on the cusp of breaking both my arms and my spirit”. This is New York, and Cristina is hosting a pre wedding party.This is a book in which no one is worried about money, despite the hints that Kara is rather dependent on the advance on the book which she is now fighting to complete and deliver. Suddenly she encounters a man she never really expected to see again, Ryan, who was the love of her college years, who surprisingly turns out to be one of the grooms childhood friends and thus a significant part of the wedding group. Despite her best intentions to be indifferent to the man who has affected every relationship since, almost against her will she is intrigued and attracted to him over again. The immediate effect is that she returns to her apartment and dashes off a chunk of her novel. Could contact with her old love be the inspiration she is looking for, even if he professes to be anything but a fan of romantic novels. 

The book follows the progress of Kara as she spends some more time with Ryan, and she accordingly considers her options in the light of his past misbehaviour. Some of the characters she encounters are truly brilliant, and overall pretty realistic. What really sets this book apart is the extracts from Kara’s historic novel, featuring a strong minded heroine and a hero with a hint of Mr Darcy about him. This is a successful addition to the book and really lifted it for me. Altogether this is an enjoyable book, a great escape from gritty realism, and has some funny dialogue.  

The Draftsman by Laurel Lindstrom – a man who finds a house and much more in a perceptive novel

The Draftsman by Laurel Lindstrom

This is a book about Martin, a single-minded genius in some ways, but with only the faintest glimmerings of understanding of other people’s and indeed his own life. It is also the story of the ghost of a house, Shadowhurst Hall, that was demolished years before in the physical sense, but comes to represent a past that Martin wants to understand. The characterless  house in the grounds now standing in the grounds is only of interest to Martin initially because it reflects his peculiar lifestyle; six bedrooms for him to have a different bed every night, grounds that he has stocked with sheep to improve the view. This is a subtle novel of a mind which is damaged and a way of seeing that brings wealth but little understanding what to do with it. The other characters in the book, including his capable sister, his vain but thoughtful friend Joshua and the stalwart Bill are remarkable for their forbearance and their choices in regard to a man who only sees the world to calculate it, seeing the lines and spaces, the shapes of the world. Damaged, lacking understanding and therefore vulnerable, Martin is a man who has sustained much, but brings unique perspective to a half-remembered house which dominated the past and may hold secrets for the present and future. I found this a fascinating novel and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review a book which offers such dreamlike insights.

The book opens with Martin arriving in the house, his house, bought six months before as an investment but now readied for his arrival by his sister Alison. They both hope that it marks a new beginning “He wanted to change, he had to change, had to move on, but he wasn’t sure why or to what.” He has driven to the house in a brand new, expensive car, the first time he had driven since passing his test, worried by its power, unaware that it was so indicative of a wealth he had little clue how to enjoy. Alison has worked hard to furnish and equip the house to his specification, even providing cans of tuna and sorting out a gardener/handyman and a cleaner. She is aware of his apartment in London, a huge single room despoiled by food, cigarette ends and the detritus of a man who simply left things to fall to the ground, seemingly unaware of the squalor around him. It transpires that their shared childhood was a strange one of obedience to a mother who may have been abusive, of a father proud of his son but totally baffled about his choices. Martin becomes a young man of rigid habits, compulsively calculating the world around him. He discovers in the house and grounds a challenge, the swans that fascinate him but represent the curves that he cannot control, a glimpse of a life that he cannot quantify, a past that he needs to find out more about.

This is not an easy book to describe, but it has a lyrical quality that transcends the need for a complex plot. It is a work of real insight and subtly marks a change in a life that was rigid and vaguely shameful, a collection of people who genuinely want the best for Martin, whose conspiracy is to help him, and in the process learn a little more about themselves. It is about a house of memories and more. I recommend it as an unusual but satisfying read which raises many questions.

The Walls of Rome by Robert M. Kidd – A young man helps in an historic attack on Rome

The Walls of Rome by Robert M. Kidd

There are times when only an adventurous book with battles and spontaneous decisions will do, and this is an excellent example of the genre. Kidd has given a series of battles for the very heart of the mighty Roman empire a personal slant, choosing to focus on the famous progress of Hannibal across the simply impassible barrier of the Alps, including his famous elephants. The whole situation is seen and contributed to by a young man called Sphax. For those who are not experts in warfare of the period, his inexperience with the distinctive ways of fighting means that he and the reader have to discover what is happening with the various groups and forces who find themselves battling throughout this fast paced and well plotted novel. This is the story of a young man’s progress, as he comes to know and appreciate the different groups he encounters. The enemies of Rome who are fighting across the European mainland are not simply “barbarians” as a vague grouping, but a variety of carefully delineated tribes and nations who find common cause in their opposition to Rome. Of course this brings with it problems, including the lack of a common language, and it is there that Sphax’s ability with and knowledge of various languages is useful and gives him a definite role, despite his original inability to use a javelin as a weapon of war. His ability to make decisions speedily, his irrepressible sense of humour and his instincts are a help in a time of enormous challenge for everyone. He is a well drawn and relatable character at the heart of this book, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

The beginning of this novel is dramatic. Sphax is a teenager who has spent the last ten years as a slave to Gaius Lucilus and his family. Ill treated generally, he has been taught by two members of the household, Elpis and Airla, covering Latin, Greek, mathematics, logic and philosophy. They had also shown him real affection after his failure to escape from slavery. He was not born as slave, it emerges that his parents were brutally murdered when he was very young by Romans. He has been inspired to make another bid for freedom when he hears of Hannibal’s bid to challenge the might of Rome, and seizes the opportunity to kill “rat face”, his master’s son on a lonely section of road. This leaves him with two horses, both of which he has trained over the last few years. He discovers a secret cache of coins, and decides he will travel onwards to find out more about Hannibal and his attempts to attack the Roman forces. It proves difficult to travel on his own, as wolves inhabit the countryside and the people in an inn in  which he spends a night are even more dangerous. After he takes dramatic action to free his stallion, he finds himself a companion, who helps him to catch up with exactly who he is looking for so he can contribute to an action. This is the beginning of a time of discovery for Sphax, and he soon has ample opportunity to show his abilities in various ways. 

This is a fascinating book which is very well researched in a variety of battles, weapons and much else in the various settings Splax appears in throughout the book. This research into the battles and understanding of the events of this significant period in Roman history never slows down the action throughout the novel. In addition, the characters are given real personalities even they prove to be minor in the great scheme of things. Sphax is a great character and is placed in a realistic setting. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys adventure and the tension of battle.   

Nearest Thing to Crazy by Elizabeth Forbes When a life is questioned…

Nearest Thing to Crazy by Elizabeth Forbes

It all begins so innocently. A village group of friends enjoying lunch together. Everyone is relatively well off, living in beautiful houses, knowing who their friends are, certain of their place. There may have been cracks; an affair, difficult parents, money worries. There is nothing really to worry about, though, everyone is so nice. Into this perfect summer day walks Ellie. Attractive, vibrant, she catches the eye, is reluctant to share her own story but open to everyone else’s secrets. She seems keen to blend in, even bond. She seems to be alone, having moved into a new barn conversion, apparently fleeing from London. Cassandra is welcoming, attempting to include her, offering lifts, an outing. Within days something seems to be not quite right, confidences exchanged are used, “concerned” allegations are made. Cassandra begins to think that there is more to Ellie than meets the eye, and that writing a novel may be a cover for something else, far closer to home.

This is a brilliantly written and plotted tale of clever invasion of a conciousness, seen from the eyes of a woman who is rapidly becoming concerned and confused about this new person in her life. Cassandra, narrator and perhaps victim is a woman who begins to feel besieged in the most insidious of ways. This is a sort of domestic thriller, though not in the sense of physical danger. Cassandra is married to a man, Dan, whom she loves but who can be distant. Their only child, Laura, is becoming distant from her, at university and apparently closer to her indulgent father. A mother who is manipulative, who likes to wound her daughter, must be visited regularly, even though nothing is ever good enough. The things that Cassandra enjoys – gardening, cooking and being in the domestic sphere, seem inadequate compared with the stylish life of Ellie, successful ex journalist and novelist. This is a book that has a lot to say about the insecurity felt by women in society, when violence is not only physical. I found this a chilling and effectively written novel, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

Cassandra loves her husband, “cosy Dan”, relaxing at weekends, interested in gossip, mostly thoughtful, despite his worries about his job in the notoriously fickle world of advertising. Laura is further away, and her visits can be spasmodic, but there is evidence that she needs her mother despite her usual air of self-containment. Cassandra’s mother, safely in a residential home is “brutally honest” bitter, accusing, and impossible to please. Cassandra has her worries, but also her joys, such as her garden, her friends, her community. Ellie seems to be trying to undermine that, suggesting that she is upset, perhaps a little unstable. Cassandra confides that she had post-natal depression when Laura was born; perhaps, it seems Ellie is suggesting, that depression is returning.

This is a novel where the narrator discovers that she is being undercut on every side, forced to question everything, must respond to what is being insinuated. She feels she has no where to turn, no one to believe her, in her doubts about her husband, her daughter, even her own thoughts. This is such a clever novel, exploring the pressures that can be placed on women in contemporary society, the control that can be exercised without being suspected. It questions what can be believed, who has the truth, even if it exists. It works on the fears that many people have, especially women. An intense read, it has much to say about the nature of truth, and how far we can trust others and our own perceptions of life.    

Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin – A transforming friendship in childhood

Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin

The summer of 1966 was a difficult one for Claire O’Connell, as she reveals in this novel of a ten-year old’s view of a family in all its secrets. Her friendship with a boy was brief, but was to define her life, already complicated by her exile to a new home. This moving story has its elements of humour as Claire views adult conversation through the confused perspective of childhood, but also begins to guess at the meanings behind the hints and half revealed secrets. A book written with great sensitivity, this book succeeds in taking the reader back to the obsessions of childhood, the fear of nuns as teachers, the complex politics of a classroom, and most poignantly of all, the quiet dreams of a boy who comes to stand for the ill treatment meted out by an entire system. Gethin has succeeded in invoking the confusions of childhood, especially when so much is kept secret, and there are long held grievances.

From the first line “We were extremely annoying children” this novel launches into a child’s view of adult behaviour which seems strange, yet justified in all powerful adults. This is a novel which describes the settings brilliantly: the cottage with so few rooms looking out over a dangerous lake, the schoolroom with its allocated seats, the gap in a hedge which allows two children to meet and exchange stories of so many types. There is undoubted cruelty as a small child is tethered to a table, a sensitive boy has to learn to survive in a new school, and unimaginable horrors visited on children who are in institutions. This book is a vivid evocation of a friendship that provides a bright spot in a challenging life, and bravery of many kinds. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this well written book.

The book opens with an argument. Claire’s mother is easily upset by Will, the eldest at twelve, Claire and little Louis, but it is when her husband enters the house wearing evidence of lipstick on his collar that “what was happening downstairs (became) a terribly scary thing”. Released from the bathroom where they are locked for their own safety, the three children are taken by their affable uncle Jack to his filthy room for the night, before being told to gather their things as they are going to visit Granny Connemara who lives in rural Ireland. Shocked at the older woman’s attitude to having to look after the children, there is much to get used to in a small cottage after life in Cardiff. Supposing that it is a temporary holiday the children begin to get used to their surroundings, but it is when they are told that they will have to stay and go to local schools that Claire begins to find that her former life is very different from an Irish school with nuns as teachers. It is only when she meets Emmet that she can truly be herself and share a little of his story.

This is a powerful and emotional read that deals with so much, not least the treatment of children in an Industrial School which is based on a real institution. It has much to say about difficult relationships and the power of the past in families, but even those issues are easier to deal with than the treatment of those without parents in institutions. The dialogue is superbly handled, given that characters speak English, Irish and Welsh on is in the little details, the little talismans that the children keep that the touching desperation is made real, extending to the crusts and apple cores “for Buddy” as well as the love of a precious book. This is a lovely novel in many ways, beautifully written, and yet expressing the injustice meted out to vulnerable children. I recommend it to those who enjoy stories of childhood and families that do not conform to expectations, but most of all the transforming force of friendship.

Pathfinders by Cecil Lewis – the stories of men on a mission in 1942 reprinted in the Imperial War Museum Classics series

Pathfinders by Cecil Lewis

This 1944 novel, recently reprinted in the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series, is a moving account not only of the first plane flying out in a vital bombing raid, but more significantly the story of those on board. Six men, from various backgrounds and different countries, are charged with flying ahead of a massive force of bomber aircraft. This is a novel of their individual stories, their backgrounds and concerns aside from the mission that night. They are experienced, highly trained and committed to their task of dropping the flares that will guide other planes to drop bombs on Kiel. Several hundred aircraft will drop bombs in a very short period of time, flattening a city, its war production and those who work and supply there. This is a novel which nods to the awfulness of that objective, and makes the point that in Spring of 1942, after three years of War, it was seen as the only way to take the fight to the heart of Hitler’s forces. This is a long time before the Normandy Landings, the physical invasion of the shores of France, when bombing and thus disrupting Hitler’s ambitions at home was seen as the only option. The Introduction points out that there were those who objected to this wholesale bombing programme, and ever since the actions of Bomber Command have been controversial. The debate goes to the heart of fiction written in a time of war without the benefit of hindsight, when victory was not assured even within years. I found it a fascinating story of the men and those around them who had been drawn together by their own skill and circumstance to fly this mission, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

This is a novel of the men who had to endure the periods of inactivity, who had to endure physical confinement in a plane, who had to display an almost superhuman level of concentration and skill to achieve their objectives. That is aside from the very real danger that they were in, a relatively small plane flying in the darkness of night into and over enemy territory. At the beginning of the novel the Flight Control Officer reflects on the losses of bombers, men, that could be expected. He remembers that a man had recently written “So we fly up and down the valley of death, till one by one fall into it”. No one has illusions about the possible outcomes of tonight’s mission, but the crew maintain their own peace. The radio operator reads Shakespeare, others think of their own roles, navigating, adjusting dealing with the reality of where they were, what they were doing, amongst thoughts of their families. This book is remarkable for the life stories it details throughout the narrative; the actual details of the flight almost interrupt these background tales. The characters who surround the crew in their own narratives are three dimensional and really live.

The mechanics of this story are fascinating, from the details of pre- flight checks including a form that has to be signed, through to the politics of bombing a densely populated area. What sets this book apart is the concentration on each of the crew’s own back story, the emotions they have gone through, their motivation for being in that aircraft, the burdens they may well carry. This is an author who has not just stuck to the technical details or the events of the night, but has got under the skin of the characters and the way that the war has brought them together, despite their different backgrounds. This is a book that I thoroughly recommend to those who enjoy fictionalized war memoirs, but also to those who find character driven narratives of interest.