Green draws on his experience with the Auxiliary Fire Service in this intricate 1943 novel about waiting for and living through the London Blitz.
When Richard Roe joined up with the AFS, nine months before Britain entered WWII, he never expected war would really occur; when it does come, his company braces for raids but is met instead by near-endless tedium, packed into an overheated substation, playing workplace politics, waiting for hellfire to rain from the sky. Roe's situation is complicated by an incident involving his subofficer Pye's sister, who abducted Roe's son as he stood dazzled in the stained-glass light of a toy shop, "a permanence of sapphire in shopping hours." This is the merest taste of Green's descriptive spellcasting, his almost psychedelic sketches of varying qualities of light and the emotional, sensory, and psychological effects of color. With his sister confined to a psychiatric institution to avoid prosecution, Pye wonders, finally, if he played a part in her deteriorating mental state. Roe's wife and son, meanwhile, have been evacuated to his childhood home. He visits them infrequently, on a slow train scoring a line along which he makes a clean break between his existence in London, where he gives in to the frenzied lusts of wartime with Hilly, the station's mess manager, and his familial life in the country, where he is overwhelmed with love for his wife. The two seemingly disparate states are not at odds in his mind, true to Green's deep understanding of the protean, multilayered nature of human existence. Green's acrobatic syntax yields not an easy reading experience but a rewarding one, as he weaves multiple narratives over and through one another, reeling among perspective shifts, zigzagging through clouds of memory and conjecture. At last comes the final conflagration, which does not kill but consumes Roe, rising up in a blaze of heat and color, death and danger.
Dense and often funny, this reissue is necessary reading for fans of both Green and modernist fiction.