Books that have World War II bombers on the cover really aren’t my sort of thing, so when my husband handed me Under An English Heaven by Robert Radcliffe, one of the books I’d bought for him at the Phoenix Book Sale *, and said I must read it, I made polite noises and put it to one side. I might well have continued making weak excuses every time he asked me if I’d got around to reading it yet if I hadn’t been tidying the piles of books in our bedroom and picked it up. Among the quotes from reviews at the bottom of the cover was ‘Enthralling – Kate Atkinson’. She’s one of my favourite authors, someone whose books I buy without even bothering to see what they’re about or read the reviews, so on the basis that if she’d enjoyed it I ought to at least give it a go, I did. The husband then sat around for the next two days as I buried myself in the book, looking smug and saying, ‘I knew you’d enjoy it…’
The basic plot isn’t so very different from many other war books. The time is the summer of 1943, the place Bedenham in Suffolk where a base has been built for an American squadron of the huge Flying Fortress B17 bombers that go deep into Germany on bombing raids. John Hooper, a pilot who can’t bring himself to face up to why he survived a crash and all his crew didn’t, is assigned to a new crew whose pilot was killed on their first mission. His official mission is to meld his new crew into an efficient fighting machine, his personal mission is to make sure they survive their tour of duty – a statistical improbability. There’s a street-wise evacuee with secrets of his own who can’t stay away from the base, the family he lodges with – the husband, the local blacksmith, still can’t come to terms with his own war 25 years before, the village schoolmistress who made a wartime marriage and has had no news of a husband she barely knew for over 18 months, her parents in law who live in ‘the Big House’ in the village and don’t really think she’s good enough for their son…
Most books set in wartime have the war as the focus, they’re about missions, battles, being bombed and the characters often act as a means of telling the war story; what makes Under An English Heaven so different is that this book is all about people, the war is almost reduced to a background for the characters – it’s there of course, it brings them together, it puts them in acute danger at times but there’s no grand overview, we see events through their eyes – usually how it affects them and not in terms of the big picture. The bomber crew fly the missions they’re told to, they don’t speculate about what they’re bombing; one of them is caught in London during an air raid and he wonders if their bombs fall on civilians, but that’s it, he, and the rest of the crew are far more concerned about the next mission and if they’re going to survive it. The villagers get on with life, try to make do, a teenage girl dreams of beiing old enough to join the ATS so that she can get away from the boredom of rural life.
Robert Radcliffe is obviously knowlegeable about his subject but he wears it very lightly, there aren’t pages of technical descriptions of machinery – there’s a diagram of the bomber on one of the first pages so you can check the details for yourself if you feel like it, instead he concentrates on what it felt like to fly in one of those bombers. (Not comfortable, freezing cold and frequently terrifying.) His writing is so vivid that you can feel the dread of the crew as they’re woken at 5 am and told to attend a briefing for their next mission, mortality rates were horrifyingly high so you can understand the constant fear they lived under, likewise you feel the lift to the spirits when the word goes round that the chippy in the village is opening for one night only. The owner has been saving fat and potatoes for weeks so everyone, villages and staff at the base, can have a treat. The letter from one of the crew to his parents about his first taste of fish and chips was wonderful.
It’s a marvellously uplifting book and as Kate Atkinson so rightly said, enthralling. In fact the only quibble I’ve got with it is that the final chapter, set in the 1980’s, is just too pat. But never mind, this is a book which can easily overcome one fault. The last major scene of the book in which the crew fly their final mission is almost unbearably tense. Good books paint a picture that you can see in your mind’s eye, better ones make you enter into their worlds, and with very few you feel that you can remember everything that happened because you lived it, you were there.
This is one of those books.
* The next Pheonix Book Sale, for any of you who are within reach of Bergerac, is on Saturday May 5th, 10 am – 3 pm in the Salle Municipale in Campsegret, on the RN21 between Bergerac and Perigaux. 15,000 second hand books in English for 1€ each.