An immensely involving depiction of the Battle of Britain on the home front (England, 1940) is the Scots poet and novelist’s moving homage to an embattled and courageous generation.
An omniscient narrator begins the story, which quickly settles into an alternation of the diaries kept by its two principal characters. He is RAF pilot Sergeant Len Westbourne, a young man from the country, inexperienced and unsophisticated; she is radar defense operator Corporal Stella Gardam, a bookish, wary young woman who meets Len at a dance, then begins an affair during which she comes to share his almost instantaneous love. Greig has mastered the relevant technical-mechanical contextual detail, and the novel breathes a convincingly dense period atmosphere that recalls such earlier war-centered fiction as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day and Henry Green’s Caught. His intense focus on Stella and Len is effectively varied by briefer concentration on such vividly conceived figures as her effervescent girlfriend Maddy (“a cheery bouncing blonde”) and his fellow pilot Polish expatriate Tadeusz Polarczyk, a Hemingway-like world-weary European who has joined the Brits to fight the Luftwaffe, in order “to revenge his family and his vanished country.” The lovers’ bittersweet idyllic meetings are further counterpointed against ominous indications of the air war’s increasing closeness (the death of Stella’s father from injuries sustained during his rescue of a terrified dog from a bomb site; Len’s hallucinatory dreams of going down in flames) and quietly reverberating set pieces, like Len’s tense, restrained conversation during a home furlough with his stoical father, a veteran of the trenches during an earlier world war. The intensity builds slowly, and to devastating effect: Greig makes us care for his characters, and fear (quite justifiably, as it turns out) for their safety.
A fine novel, every bit as good as the one to which it will inevitably be compared: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.