This week on The War Report, Tony Cross continues his series of articles on films and books portraying Britain in the Second World War with the novel Darkness Falls From the Air by Nigel Balchin...
A classic novel of the London Blitz that captures all the chaos, absurdity, and tragedy of life during the bombardment. Bill Sarratt, a civil servant, spends the war wining, dining, and wittily commenting on London's shattered nightlife. But, as the bombs begin to fall closer and closer, Sarratt's wife takes on a lover--and his life literally begins to crumble around him.
I'd been meaning to read this for ages but was nudged into it after listening to an episode of the Backlisted podcast. One small point is that this edition has an awful cover, but that shouldn't put you off reading it because this is a fine book.
Published in 1942 it must have seemed raw. It's the story of Bill Sarratt, a civil servant with a line in sardonic wit and an anger at what isn't being done by his department to win the war. Sarratt is married to Marcia who has been having an affair with Stephen. Stephen is one of those literary pontificators with a fine line in emotional blackmail. The story is told by Bill. There are moments when you wonder if Bill feels anything about Marcia and Stephen apart from the disappointment that Marcia should fall for someone as transparently fake as Stephen. But in the end, you know he does.
There's something of both Graham Greene's 'The End of the Affair' and 'Brief Encounter'. If 'Brief Encounter' was told by Laura's husband, Fred. Although Alec seems to be much less of a twit than Stephen.
It also has a fine line in political satire, without making a huge deal of it. Bill's constant battles to get his ideas approved in the face of industry feels almost modern. All that talk of avoiding forcing business into doing anything and letting them follow voluntary, self-policed codes that allow the greedy and criminal to carry on regardless might as well be about our current culture of privatisation.
It's much of its time in terms of its treatment of some women. Bill's constantly letching over his secretary and talks of giving Marcia a 'smacked bottom' as if he's the First Doctor talking to his granddaughter. There's also one or two uses of the Jew/Jew boy, which feel a little wrong, but the anti-Semitism of the posh English was often remarked in the 1930s and 40s. Whether this is Balchin's opinion or Bill's is obviously impossible to tell at this point.
However, those quibbles aside this is a fun and witty book whose emotions are often hidden beneath Bill's 'facetiousness'. The ending is fine work and the last line hits you like a brick.
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Image/synopsis - Goodreads.