2013, 278 p.
I recognized the author’s name and remembered that I’d read some of his books before. I was drawn in by the prospect of a book set in the Blitz in 1941, a setting that I find fascinating, so I borrowed it. I only had to read about five pages in to remember that, yes, I have read several Steven Carroll books before and I had a love/hate relationship with every single one of them.
This book is no exception. Steven Carroll writes in the present tense, swapping from one character to another, and alternating between second and third person. I dislike the use of the second person and I have mixed feelings about present tense. His books are very visual, centred on a particular image to which he keeps returning. Like a sewing machine darning a hole, he keeps going back and forth, back and forth, embroidering and over-stitching an image or an event.
As soon as I remembered this narrative voice, I remembered how much I disliked it. Nonetheless, I kept reading and I’m glad (I think) that I did. It’s a beautifully written, poignant story and I felt sad to finish it.
Iris is a young Oxford Graduate and aspiring writer, employed as as a civil servant by day and aa fire-watcher by night during the Blitz. Along with a clutch of other people including the poet T. S. Eliot, she waits all night on the rooftop of the Faber and Faber building, watching for bomber planes and their fiery load, and directing the fire trucks to the conflagration. She doesn’t know it, but the Blitz proper has already ended, but one night she and her fellow watchers see a plane swoop down low -too low- over the city buildings. Minutes later they hear a dull explosion. She catches T. S. Eliot’s eye and realizes that she is seeing Eliot at work right there, in that moment, as writer as he grabs an experience that will later be transformed into poetry.
A year later, in the ruptured world of war-torn London, she meets Jim, an Australian pilot in Bomber Command, who has been invalided out of flying duties after an accident. They meet and fall in love. I shall say no more, lest I give the story away.
Books and writing are an important theme in the book, and T. S. Eliot and his poem ‘Little Gidding’ (which I must confess, I have never read) play an important part in the story. As a result, I think that much of the ‘cleverness’ of the book went right over my head, and so I just read it straight, completely unaware of any layers of meaning below the surface.
The book has obviously been carefully researched, but it wears it lightly. By inhabiting at various times both Jim and Iris’s consciousness, Carroll has given us well-rounded, complex characters, and the plot pulls you to what you know is going to be a tragic end. The ending solves a little conundrum set up in the opening pages in a very satisfying way.
This present-tense voice and habit of perseveration is obviously Carroll’s narrative ‘thing’ and it’s unfortunate for me that it grates so harshly. I feel as if he’s almost writing to a template, where the setting and events change but the voice goes on and on. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book in spite of the way it was written, which I suppose is testament to the strength of the characters and story. I must remind myself next time I pick up a Steven Carroll book that I really don’t like the way he writes, and that I should just put it back onto the shelf.
Ah- another woman with her back to us. The image has little connection with the story.
Andrew Furhmann has written a far more detailed and intellectual review (full of spoilers) which can be read at the Sydney Review of Books. His review makes me feel rather embarrassed that I missed so much in my very surface reading of the book.