Vir­tu­oso dis­play of wartime cliches

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Daniel Stacey

SET in the years im­me­di­ately suc­ceed­ing World War II, A. L. Kennedy’s Day is the story of Royal Air Force gun­ner Al­fred Day, who is try­ing to piece his life back to­gether. He is suf­fer­ing from shell shock and his wartime love has left him.

And yes, he al­most made it to the reg­u­la­tory 30 op­er­a­tions with his bomber crew be­fore they were blown out of the sky over Ger­many. Yes, even the charm­ing skip­per, Sandy, with eyes like ‘‘ the morn­ing sky’’ had to die. Yes, Day ended up in a Ger­man pris­oner- of- war camp. Yes, his best friend from that camp, Ringer, died be­fore they could get back to Eng­land. Yes, it was all his fault.

We’ve all heard sto­ries of this sort, and on just this sub­ject mat­ter, many times be­fore; it’s a field so well ploughed it has be­come a rav­aged, loamy pit of mean­ing­less cliches. It is al­most un­fath­omable why a writer as gifted as A. L. Kennedy has cho­sen to re­visit this ma­te­rial, al­beit in an as­ton­ish­ingly vir­tu­osic fash­ion.

This is not a bad book by any means, though: Kennedy’s hyp­notic, strik­ingly orig­i­nal prose is a con­stant coun­ter­point to the dead sto­ry­line. She com­bines in­ner and outer nar­ra­tives, present- day thoughts and mem­o­ries, dreams and vis­ceral re­ac­tions into one smooth, haunt­ing pas­sage of words, cap­tur­ing a com­plex­ity of sen­sa­tion that is star­tling and re­ward­ing.

In one par­tic­u­larly strik­ing scene, Day is starv­ing in a Ger­man PoW camp and thinks of his girl­friend Joyce in Lon­don. Racked with hunger and the in­hu­man­ity of his sit­u­a­tion, his stom­ach be­comes ‘‘ a lit­tle fist, twist­ing when­ever he shifted, re­mind­ing him that it was chang­ing and mak­ing him changed, too; it had swal­lowed his lack of Joyce, his cer­tainty they’d never meet again, and at any quiet time it would let him un­der­stand her as a hol­low­ness be­side his spine. When he took his bread and tea, he would be care­ful, shy, not want­ing to dis­turb her.’’

The pas­sage is an as­tound­ing evo­ca­tion of the delir­ium, the sad­ness and in­escapable pain of Day’s squalid sit­u­a­tion, a maze of cross­colonis­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal sen­sa­tions.

At an­other point, sit­ting with a fel­low RAF crew­man just af­ter they have blan­ket- bombed Ham­burg as part of Op­er­a­tion Go­mor­rah ( an 11- day bomb raid that wiped out 250,000 homes and killed 50,000 civil­ians), Day’s sud­den ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the supreme ghast­li­ness of what he’s done is made chill­ingly im­me­di­ate: ‘‘ And then it bares your teeth and licks them, holds you so you smell how glad it is you’ve let it out. The harm­ful thing.’’

Kennedy poaches a reg­u­lar kines­thetic sensa-

tion of dis­quiet and anx­i­ety — the lick­ing of teeth — and mag­ni­fies it, us­ing sec­ond- per­son nar­ra­tion to in­trude upon our own ex­pe­ri­ence, cre­at­ing a pow­er­fully em­pa­thetic bond.

Th­ese and so many other small mo­ments, thrillingly con­structed, full of buzzing life and intelligence, are stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful. But then the mun­dane plot comes back again and again — a sec­ond- hand tale of war, loss and re­demp­tion, an­other few hun­dred re­search hours clocked up at the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum, his­tor­i­cal fiction at its most an­o­dyne, told so, so many times be­fore that it’s al­most mean­ing­less.

In some sense, Day par­o­dies its own short­com­ings. Al­fred Day takes a job as an ex­tra in a film about PoW camps in Ger­many ( which sounds a bit like John Sturges’s The Great Es­cape ). Liv­ing with other for­mer mil­i­tary men in a fake prison camp, th­ese bro­ken, mad ac­tors — sur­rounded by make- up teams recre­at­ing war wounds and direc­tors de­mand­ing dra­matic groans of agony — con­stantly sabotage the film crew’s at­tempts to retell their sad, worn- out story. They beat each other, ran­domly break into uni­son ren­di­tions of air sirens, steal the veg­eta­bles in the fake veg­etable patch, dig tun­nels un­der their huts, and point guns at lo­cals. They are an­gry, vi­o­lent, lost men, sur­rounded by a world wish­ing to cre­ate tales out of their chaos.

I don’t think that’s the point, though. I think Kennedy re­ally wants to tell the story of Al­fred Day: young, work­ing- class boy from an abu­sive fam­ily, fa­ther an al­co­holic fish- shop owner. Day, flung into the rar­efied world of the RAF, where he makes friends with jolly up­per- class peo­ple who ed­u­cate him, who give him books to read, who take him un­der their wing be­fore they’re all knocked off.

This plot, this sub­ject mat­ter, is all so safe, so well- worn and ex­pected. Even its sub­themes of the dis­so­lu­tion of the Bri­tish class sys­tem and the re­verse coloni­sa­tion of Bri­tain as it en­cour­aged mi­gra­tion af­ter the war, have been done to death. Nev­er­the­less, Kennedy’s prose is truly bril­liant. Day is cer­tainly a su­pe­rior ac­count of the hor­rors of World War II through the eyes of one or­di­nary man. The ques­tion is whether you have the pa­tience for yet an­other ex­am­ple of the genre. Daniel Stacey is a Lon­don- based mag­a­zine ed­i­tor, writer and critic.

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