I’ll hold my hands up: with Day it was a case of third time lucky. I tried to read it twice and gave up twice before finally making it all the way through from the beginning to the end. Admittedly both the failed attempts were made in the small hours of the morning through the pain of a broken shoulder, which might go some way to explaining my initial lack of engagement, but whatever the circumstances it’s fair to say I needed to work to find my way into the book.
For a kick off there was the book blurb, which didn’t grab me. A contemporary female author writing as if inside the head of a second world war Lancaster bomber tail-gunner is no mean feat but it doesn’t particularly excite my interest. If Day hadn’t won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2007 I wouldn’t have got past the jacket.
And then there’s the stream of consciousness-type writing. Maybe I’ve been scarred by too much James Joyce too young but internal dialogue can come across as little more than an extended ramble. Call me a Philistine but I like my authors to filter out the detritus that goes through people’s brains not bottle it for general consumption.
But the great thing about reading award winners is that I get pushed kicking and screaming out of my comfort zone. Ditching the kindle, I reached for my paperback copy of Day and clutched at the chapter structure like the proverbial drowning man at a straw. And bit by bit I began to tune into the rhythm of the voice, the rhythm of the story; the oscillation of both between internal and external, between then and now.
‘Then’ is 1939. Arthur Day volunteers to serve in the RAF as soon as he’s sixteen, before he’s conscripted into the army (rings true, that, because my maternal uncle did the same) and is subjected to all the joys and horrors of the sixth-month old war. And there are joys – learning the gun drill (“it felt like choosing, like being free”), being part of his team, falling in love with Joyce during an air-raid – and there are (obviously) horrors – the death of a friend (“what you remember is the smell of him, hot and something filthy about it”), the bombing of Hamburg (‘we burned the sky open today and now death will come in’), his team’s last, doomed mission (our fault, this – we burned up the sky and now it’s come for us’).
‘Now’ is Arthur in 1949, leaving his friend, Ivor, in London to return to Germany, to the very camp where he was held prisoner during the war, to be an extra (a prisoner of war) in a WWII film. A situation likely to unsettle the most stable of minds and Arthur, by his own admission, is ‘not that sane any more.’
There is a seam of bleakness running through the book, for sure. ‘However skilled you are at tucking what you care about away, however low you lie, however trained and fine you make yourself, it doesn’t matter – you are a small, soft thing and the world is full of fire and hardness and if you are scared, alert, distracted, bored with your job, the bullet hits you all the same.’ But for all that, or perhaps because of it, it is strangely life-affirming. Alfred has, after all, survived, however damaged: he has found friendship with Ivor and love with Joyce, however ‘complicated’ the relationships. And the final line of the book sees Arthur imagining a sort of happiness for himself, albeit unable to articulate that happiness (‘you will feel like laughing’).
Day isn’t easy reading but I’m so glad I persevered because by the end I couldn’t put it down. It more than repaid the early effort.
Overall rating: ** (worth reading)