This historical novel, set in London and Malta during World War II, examines how political events beyond personal control influence the private lives of people. Mary North is the cosseted daughter of an affluent family who volunteers for the war effort. She is assigned a teaching job through which she meets Tom Shaw who works for the Education Authority and with whom she begins a love affair. Tom’s roommate, Alistair Heath, an art conservator, enlists for active duty and is deployed to France and later to Malta. Though Mary tries to set up her best friend Hilda with Alistair, Mary and Alistair have an instant connection when they meet, despite Mary’s insisting that she is in love with Tom. The book follows these four young people and shows how the realities of war affect their lives.
Each of the characters changes. No one escapes untransformed after experiencing the horrors and losses of war. Some suffer physically; others, emotionally; some, both. Certainly, all lose their naivety and innocence. Mary certainly undergoes a change. At the beginning, the war is just an opportunity for adventure; she signs up 15 minutes after war is declared, leaving “finishing school unfinished . . . desperate not to miss a minute of the war.” She has her own view of war: “What was war, after all, but morale in helmets and jeeps? And what was morale if not one hundred million little conversations . . . The true heart of war was small talk, in which Mary was wonderfully expert.” She agrees to go with Hilda to see the effects of the first bombing of the city: “’I’ll be damned if we’ll be the only ones who haven’t. It’s all anyone will be talking about.’” Later, as the Blitz continues, she reflects: “If we truly wanted to help, we could have hosted this whole street in your place and mine, instead of digging through their rubble. . . . We’ve never done anything, have we? We’ve no talent but conversation.’” And, later, she summarizes how she is different: “London’s circle had seemed quite equal to the earth’s equator. Now she saw the smallness of it. How vain she had been in her nest, feathering it with mirrors.”
The love story is unconvincing. Mary’s love for Tom seems superficial perhaps because she tries “extremely hard to show it.” It is almost as if she wills herself to fall in love with him because of her rebellious nature; she enjoys discomfiting her family by choosing a man from a lower social class. And her love for Alistair begins after one meeting and survives all obstacles? Perhaps we are to think that the shallow Mary doesn’t understand real love until she meets Alistair, but the “love at first sight” theme doesn’t work for cynical old me.
Another difficulty I had with the book is that all the characters engage in relentless witty banter. Certainly, some people use humour as a way to help them deal with traumatic events, but in the book everyone uses clever repartee: Tom, Alistair, Mary, Hilda, Mary’s mother, Alistair’s comrades-in-arms like Duggan and Simonson, even children like 10-year-old Zachary. Surely not everyone is capable of snappy dialogue and clever witticisms.
There are aspects of the book that I enjoyed. I knew little about the siege of Malta so that historical element was enlightening as was the blatant racism in WWII-era England. At one point, Hilda tells Mary to forget about a young black child: “’You’re not his family, or even his species.’” Mary, who embraces racial equality, reflects, “It was simply a peculiarity of the British that they could be stoical about two hundred and fifty nights of bombing, while the sight of her with a Negro child offended their sensibilities unbearably.” I enjoyed some of the biting commentary: “’I see the wealthy untouched by this war and the poor bombed out by it, and yet rich and poor alike make not a murmur. I see Negro children cowering in basements while white children sojourn in the country . . . We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.’”
Despite the fact that the novel deals with serious issues, it is not totally pessimistic; in fact, it is a narrative of redemption. War strips people down to their essentials, showing their best and worst. For their worst, the novel suggests people can be forgiven: “Everyone would be excused, for everything they’d done.” The titles of the three parts of the book hint at the theme: Preservation, Attrition, and Restoration. A life may not be able to be preserved but it can be rebuilt “if everyone forgiven was brave.”
The book is slow-moving and so not always a compelling read, but it is nonetheless worthwhile.