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Not an everyday story of war


AL Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, €25.82

Alfred Day, former tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War, is the protagonist of Alison Kennedy's fifth novel.

It is now 1949, and Alfred, only 25 but feeling more like 50, is finding he's not very good at peace. The only boy in a family of girls, with a drunken, abusive fishmonger father and a doting and doted-on mother, the war (or more specifically, his RAF flying crew) offered him a previously unimagined camaraderie, and an escape from his rural Staffordshire origins.

For all the rigid class structure of Britain, the war was a great leveller, with everyone mucking in together. But look at him now, trying not very successfully to negotiate the readjustment to civilian life, a way of being as an adult that he has never properly known.

He has been working in his friend Ivor's quiet bookshop, but what's really eating him is numbness, a sense of psychological paralysis occasioned by the losses he has accumulated: his mother, ostensibly felled by a falling roof slate, although Alfred suspects, rightly or wrongly, that his father had something to do with her demise; his crew, since he was the only survivor when his plane was shot down over Hamburg in 1943; and his girlfriend, Joyce, a chance encounter during the Blitz, then, as now, unhappily married to a lieutenant she hardly knew. In addition, Alfred also has his experiences as a German PoW to deal with, not least of which is the death of his friend from the camp, Ringer, who saved him, but whom he failed to save.

So, when the novel opens, we discover he has volunteered as an extra in a prison-camp movie being shot in Germany, trying to find the piece of him that had come adrift in the real prison. He is surrounded by actors playing the war, new and old service men, 'good' Germans and displaced persons, and among them are people like him, who won't talk about what happened.

Then there are the kind of people he was fighting, like the nasty piece of work that is the Nazi collaborator Vasyl, whose personal (im)morality, or code of survival, is summed up succinctly in his saying: "It's like this -- you kiss your wife, I take away her face -- which one of us is more sensible? You hold on to her hand when she can't feel and then I stop you feeling -- which one of us is more sensible?,The novel, then, is about the crushing weight of guilt, and the redemptive power of love. If that sounds trite, it isn't meant to. It is also, strangely enough, given its forensic delineation of the darker propensities of human nature, perhaps Kennedy's most optimistic longer work to date.

In these homogenised, commodified times it is increasingly rare to find a writer with both a signature style and a sensibility (the two are intimately linked) so distinctly their own that they are instantly recognisable upon opening one of their books, and could not be anyone else's.

AL Kennedy is such an artist, and Day handsomely extends her already impressive achievement in contemporary fiction.