Virtuoso display of wartime cliches
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.