Alfred Day is returning to Germany to work as an extra in a film set in a WWII POW camp. It hasn’t been that long since he was a POW for real, after his plane was shot down over Hamburg. Alfie, the tail gunner, survives to find himself immured in a camp where he befriends Ringer, an even sadder sack, and finds new purpose for himself in caring for his friend. At the camp he learns what it is to be truly hungry, far beyond being “clemmed” growing up, as the son of the village fishmonger.
This is not an easy book to read but it is well worth the effort. For one thing, though we stay with Alfie throughout, the point of view shifts from third person to first to second, and the other voices that we hear are often unattributed. Also, Alfie’s thoughts jump about in time, touching on various memories, returning to the film set. This is stream of consciousness with a vengeance, but redeemed by the singular and consistent voice, which is Alfie’s voice, even in third person, the voice of a barely educated country boy who doesn’t really understand himself or anyone else, but tries to do the right thing.
The subject matter is the other reason the book is hard to read. Alfie joins up as soon as he turns 16, eager to escape from the fish shop and his abusive father. A simple lad with few expectations, we feel his pride at being the first crew member chosen by his “Skipper”. In fact, the interactions among the crew—their teasing, their fights, their intense loyalty to each other—are the best things about the book. These are the first mates Alfie has had, and it is a revelation to him that he can be accepted by this group and have a valued place in it.
The style takes the reader directly into Alfie’s deepest thoughts and most secret feelings. I seem to have read a number of books recently about the difficulty of coming back after a war. For me, this one more than any other most goes to the heart of the experience. Unflinching, it wades right into the mess of memories and regrets, successes and failures. A hard book to put down, a hard book to pick up again—I found it best to just read straight through, as much as time allowed.
There are some evocative, almost lyrical, phrases that Alfie in his innocence finds to describe his world. In speaking of the way his crew lives in the moment, he says, “It would not be concerned with its past and had no business thinking of its future: its cleverness was in drinking up its minutes, second by second, and making sure to drain each one. It looked at the bods outside it who did not grasp this, looked at the sleepy civilian types—the spivs and 4Fs—and saw how close they were to being dead: how the time streamed off other people like rain and ran away without them missing it.” Later, on the film set, he feels faint and sits down, feeling “the ground rushing beneath you. Your spine tingles and you wonder if this isn’t an echo you’re reading, if so many bombs haven’t changed the earth, haven’t left it always shivering and taken away its rest.”
Kennedy creates characters I won’t soon forget, not just Alfie, but the Skipper who calls him “Boss”, Pluckrose the navigator who refers to him as “A. Day”, Ivor the owner of the shop where Alfie fetches up after the war who calls him “dear boy” when he isn’t swearing at him. Nor will I forget some of the scenes, such as the crew standing in a circle, playing catch in complete darkness, a drill the Skipper thought up. Or the way they started leaving a record playing on the turntable when they left for a mission to ensure that they’d return, one of Pluckrose’s zany ideas that somehow worked. Or Alfred, who excelled with his gun, trying to learn how to fight hand-to-hand, much to the despair of the sergeant who was teaching him.
All of Alfred’s memories are filtered through the surreal experience of pretending to live through them again. Like his fellow extras, he gets caught up in creating a real garden, a tunnel, a stove out of two tin cans, forgetting that he is just supposed to go through the motions for the camera. In this world of ours—of special effects and virtual worlds and second lives—I wonder sometimes how clear we are on the difference between pretence and really living, if we know how to drain each second. This is a remarkable book.