Another book review this week. Well, people seem to like book reviews, and I'm a great believer in giving my readers what they want.
After exploring the middle of the 19th century with last week's review of Fingersmith, this week may seem hardly historical at all. S.A. Laybourn’s A Kestrel Rising is set during World War II. There’s no doubt that stories set in the 1940s qualify as ‘historical’ but many people see ‘war stories’ as a separate genre. This, though, is no war story: it’s a romance told from the point of view of a young woman (Ilona) who has joined the WAAF to do her bit for the war effort by driving. She starts by driving pilots to their aircraft and she is soon adopted by the absurdly young men that she takes out to wait for what might be their last flight and who she greets as they return, frightened but putting a brave face on their adventures. Romance almost inevitably ensues, but then this idyll (he is handsome and kind; she is a virgin, desperately giving herself to the love of her life) ends with the death of the pilot. Around a fifth of ‘the Few’ died in the Battle of Britain and the book is very good at capturing the way that everyone in the RAF and WAAF had to live with the reality of friends and comrades dying or being horribly injured on a regular basis.
Ilona is emotionally destroyed by the loss of her lover and transfers to a job driving trucks between RAF bases, so she has less contact with the pilots. The war, though, touches every aspect of her life. Her family is terribly important to her but she hardly ever has the chance to visit them. So when it turns out that a distant relative has come over from America to sign up with the RAF, she feels obliged to spend time with him. In one of the book’s rare descents into cliché, she at first hates him before slowly growing close to him. But he is flying escort in the bombing raids on Europe – a role with a horrifically high attrition rate. Ilona is terrified to admit her feelings because she feels that she cannot face the loss of a second lover.
I would say that this is very definitely a ‘historical novel’. The romance is defined by the reality of war and the social attitudes of its time. It's probably more driven by historical reality than most ‘historical romances’ where, one suspects, the details of the dresses are the only point at which real history touches the story. Here everything from the ring that her lover gives her to wear on their ‘dirty weekend’ to the impossibility of sleeping together when he visits Ilona’s house (though her parents are under no illusions as to their relationship), all catch the combination of social repression and sexual liberation that seems to have typified the war years.
Laybourn also writes with real understanding about the emotional agony of losing a lover to death. It’s probably only fair to say that I have been a ‘virtual friend’ of this author for a while (though I have never met her) and I know that these passages reflect her own experience. They are written from the heart and rise far above the mawkishness that can characterise some romantic writing.
While this is a romance, rather than a war story, Laybourn has a scarily precise grip on the different sorts of fighter planes used in the war and the various ways in which you could die in all of them. When the pilots describe their experiences, they ring absolutely true. There’s also interesting stuff about the position of US airmen as the US finally joins the war.There are, of course, places where reality gives way to the necessities of keeping the plot moving. Realistically, there are an awful lot of railway journeys (the only way to travel any distance when off-duty) but, unrealistically, our hero and heroine always get seats, so they can move the story along with meaningful conversations. While it is remarked on as lucky, accounts I have read of wartime travel suggest it was little short of miraculous. And once the war is over, everybody is demobilised practically overnight so that Laybourn can hurry us to the inevitable happy ending. (I was holding out for a dark twist where they survive the war only to die in a freak motorcycle accident on the first day of peace, but I’m not your average romance reader and it was never going to happen.) There are an awful lot of goodbyes at stations (I felt sometimes that I was on a constant rerun of 'Brief Encounter') but that’s probably realistic and if the desperately stiff upper lips and ‘I do love you, darling’s seem ridiculous in 2016, I doubt they did back then. The one occasion where they take a return rail journey and end up back at a different London terminus is less convincing, but perhaps the usual route was blocked by bombing or something. It’s the only obvious ‘gotcha’ so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.Beautifully written, with credible characters you come to care about, this book works as a romance and as a novel of the Second World War. I recommend it.