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Day - A L Kennedy
Day is the fifth novel from Scottish writer AL Kennedy and the winner of the prestigious Costa Book of the Year Award (previously the Whitbread) in 2007.
It is the story of Alfred Day, a Royal Air Force veteran of the Second World War trying to come to terms with himself as he relives some of his darkest memories while working as an extra on a prisoner of war film some years after the end of the war.
Born in Staffordshire, Alfred has not had a happy life. Son to a violent fishmonger his early life is dominated by his fear of a drunken father's rages. Short and slightly built he lacks confidence both in himself and in social situations and only when war comes does he find the means to escape. Only in war does he find any personal definition. As the tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber the crew become his family, the skipper a surrogate father - someone to please, someone to make proud and someone to provide that filial affection that was missing before. In the war he also finds love, in the form of Joyce. A married woman whose husband has been lost in the Far East and presumed dead Joyce provides a chance of romance that Day never thought he'd find.
The book opens in 1949 on the film set; Alfred is wandering around the countryside surrounding the fake camp in the company of Vasyl, an unpleasant Ukrainian who becomes a recurring character in the book. At this point we know little of Alfred but we are immediately presented with a disturbing scene as they, dressed as allied prisoners, come across a local German woman and her daughter. Clearly shocked and afraid to see them Alfred seeks to calm and reassure the woman but Vasyl, drawing a stolen Luger, threatens them. It is here we see the first of many conundrums surrounding Alfred. In Alfred's own words Vasyl is a tricky customer with a dark reputation as a 'knife-man' yet despite being armed Alfred tackles him, beating him to the ground and taking the gun allowing the woman to escape. For someone so lacking in physical confidence this immediately strikes a discordant note and raises questions about the unseen depths of this man's character. As Vasyl keeps reappearing he antagonises Alfred further and acts as a catalyst to make him revisit those parts of his past that have been so carefully locked away. In another novel Vasyl could be dismissed as a fantasy figure, existing only as a nemesis in Alfred's mind but this isn't that kind of novel.
As we follow Alfred around the film set, variously taking part in crowd scenes or parades, we see that he is using this experience to exorcise his own demons, to provide some definition to his life, a life that has been drifting meaninglessly since the war ended. Like many men of his generation, the war provided the focal point of their lives and every other part of their lives can only be understood when viewed in relation to their experiences of that war. Only after several chapters are we given more than a glimpse of Alfred's earlier life as the book's structure begins to take shape. As a multi-threaded history the details are slowly fed to us by the author and lead inexorably to the point where we now find him.
We know that he was a gunner in the Air Force but that he ended the war in a POW camp. We know that he'd been in love with a woman called Joyce but hadn't seen her for several years and it's clear he believes she has no intention of seeing him again. We know these things because Alfred tells us them early on, but we don't know how he got to those points. Alfred knows, but can't bear to face up to them so we have to bear patient witness as he recounts his life, remembering things he'd locked away for too many years, in the hope that he can close out a part of his life that is holding him back and allow him to move forwards.
The book follows two main threads; alongside his time on the film set we also follow his service in the RAF. From his initial recruitment by the skipper, the assembly of the crew to the desperate missions they undertake, slowly ticking them off until they can reach the magic 30 ops after which they can retire from active service. Interspersed between these two threads we see snippets of his post war life, working in a book shop with the shops owner, Ivor. The two share an empty life, trading well worn arguments and insults in their always empty shop.
For Alfred the war is the best of times and the worst of times. Good at his job he is an integral part of the crew and a favourite of the skipper, for the first time in his life he has a sense of belonging and of being respected and appreciated. With this surrogate family he finds fulfilment and a degree of happiness but it is also a terrible time of fear and loneliness. Beyond the crew is only isolation, even within the squadron. As a new crew they are ignored or ridiculed by other more experienced crews but as their tally of completed missions grow and they become the senior fliers they in turn ignore the new crews and airmen. Everyone has the smell of death on them and you don't want that bad luck infecting you.
On a weekend's leave in London Alfred meets Joyce during an air raid. Despite his painfully shy stammerings she perseveres and an unlikely friendship and romance develops. Like many woman at the time, Joyce's life is on hold. Although married her husband has long been lost in the Far East and could be presumed dead, but she can't do this. Society dictates that she must wait and remain the devout wife so their blossoming relationship is stilted and always in the shadow of the missing husband. More confident and assertive than Alfred Joyce still craves the romance as much as him and for both it provides a glimmer of hope in otherwise desperate times.
In a book that tells a fairly sad story the theme of hope is perhaps the biggest sinner. For most of his life Alfred's biggest enemy has been hope. As a child he hoped to escape his father's violence but as another evening ends with him returning home in a drunken rage he resents that glimmer he'd held onto. As his crew complete twenty five missions, then twenty six and twenty seven the hope that they will see out the thirty brings fear to them in case it engenders complacency or brings bad luck and as a prisoner he consciously suppresses any hope that he may survive. Even on the film set, when he is looking for direction for his stagnating life he shies away from hope until the very end.
Although occasionally ponderous and slow moving, Day is a very well written book. By following the multi threaded style Kennedy maintains interest by drip feeding the reader information that takes us back to the point where the book began and then beyond to a satisfying conclusion. Kennedy matches the style of her narrative to the situations that Alfred finds himself in, whether it's the awkwardness of his times with Joyce, the adrenalin of his bombing missions or his confrontations with the provocative Vasyl we find ourselves perfectly in tune with his emotions and state of mind. She also has a wonderful grasp of dialogue, not least when in times of stress or distraction Alfred slips into his native Staffordshire dialect.
Reminiscent of William Trevor this is an engaging read but you remain an observer of the central character. Held at a distance there is a certain degree of detachment in the story telling. At 270 pages it isn't long but it is satisfying. I am not usually swayed by book awards but I feel the Costa judging panel have made a good choice with this book. I suspect this is a book that would benefit from being read again and I fully intend to do so.
Alfred Day wanted his war. In its turmoil he found his proper purpose as the tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber; he found the wild, dark fellowship of his crew, and - most extraordinary of all - he found Joyce, a woman to love. But that's all gone now - the war took it away. Maybe it took him, too. Now in 1949, employed as an extra in a war film that echoes his real experience, Day begins to recall what he would rather forget...