I wouldn’t have picked this book from a bookshelf had I seen it – it is not my usual genre. But I would have missed out had I not been sent it as part of the Secret Book Club. I learnt a great deal about the events of World War II, and gained an insight into the terrible personal tragedies that seemed insignificant against the backdrop of an international drama.
‘After The Bombing’ is written in the present tense and although this is not a style I would usually choose, I found that it worked and I did not jar as I read it. It served to separate reminiscences from the here and now of the narrative, and with the novel set in two timelines that run concurrently, it certainly helped the flow.
Clare Morrall offers up some interesting characters, two of which have a major presence in both timelines. Alma is a refugee from the local girl’s school, Goldwyn’s, which is badly damaged in the Exeter ‘Baedeker’ bombing. She is accommodated in a hall of residence at the nearby university and comes under the care of Robert Gunner, the hall warden and a maths lecturer. Alma is likeable and one can identify with her and appreciate, if not identify with, what she goes through. Robert however, is cold and repressed, craving silence and willing to impose it one everyone else. He is, at best, dysfunctional, and has definite autistic spectrum tendencies in the manner in which he relates to the world around him.
The Baedeker raids were conducted by the German Luftwaffe in two periods between April and June 1942. They targeted militarily unimportant but picturesque cities in England. The cities were reputedly selected from the German ‘Baedeker Tourist Guide to Britain’, meeting the criterion of having been awarded three stars for their historical significance.
Of the other characters, Curls is a delight and one cannot help but look forward to her appearing in a scene. Confident, talented and utterly fearless, she is someone you wish you knew. Miss Yates, the headmistress at Goldwyn’s, is not one to attract sympathy. She is too competitive – who has suffered more, Exeter or Coventry – and she is too devious and manipulative. I couldn’t like her.
When it comes to historical fiction, especially with an event as recent as WWII, one has to get the research right. I know very little about this period, but, even I spotted a glaring error. One of the characters refers to the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster; however, this was not seen by the public until the year 2000. Although it is a small detail, it grates.
Otherwise, this is an enjoyable novel, one I wanted to finish. I wanted to know what happened in 1942 to still affect the characters of 1963. And, of course, I wanted to know where the characters ended up. This last question is not actually answered. Only one character has any kind of an epiphany to change their outlook on life.