- - Thursday, February 2, 2017



By Elizabeth Wilhide

Penguin, $16, 320 pages

This is a searing recollection of an era of terror when as the author puts it, “people fell out of the sky.”

Those people were war dead and the memory as portrayed by Elizabeth Wilhide is that of Julia and her existence in the World War II blitz of London. The scenes of what Londoners suffered in 1944 are harrowing not only for their gruesome qualities but for their chilling emphasis on how much trivia came to matter.

Some people preferred going to a surface shelter rather than the malodorous Underground and others chose to crouch under the stairs in their home. When Julia does this on one occasion, she finds herself coping with two incendiary bombs on the roof, and saving the structure with her buckets. As a member of an anti-aircraft battery she gives the order that downs an enemy plane.

And what the reader must always keep in mind is that this is the same Julia who led a comfortable and even spoiled life far from the fray with her lawyer husband and nine-year-old son Peter. That was before she fell in violent love with a documentary film maker and walked out on her life and everyone in it. Including her son.

It takes a long time for her to realize the enormity of her actions and the utter selfishness of them. Especially since Dougie, the charming rascal who stole her life, turned out not to be worth it. Something that had already occurred to his first wife who fled to Canada with their three young daughters which didn’t really disturb Dougie much either.

It is a long time before Julia realizes the bitter truth that all that really matters to Dougie, apart from sex, is his film making at which he is very good indeed. Ironically it is what brought them together when his camera trapped her and caught her apparently happy life in a small town with Richard and Peter. What makes Julia so difficult to like is that she has no real reason to abandon her life apart from scrambling into bed with a stranger and never giving any thought to the pain she was inflicting on the family whose flaw was to love her.

If the book has a flaw it is in its failure to recognize how truly unworthy Julia is as a person. She is offended when her trusting husband shouts at her a after finding a cache of love letters from Dougie. She cannot understand why her father resents her betrayal of him and the rest of her life for the sake of a man who is unfaithful to her within weeks. Yet the strength of the book lies in its unforgettable chapters relating the agony of civilians at war and surviving it. Death and disaster are their daily lot and they get on with life despite the knowledge that there may well be no tomorrow or anywhere to flee to if the sun does rise on their mortality.

Most poignant are the scenes involving Julia’s son Peter, who has been tucked away in boarding school whether he likes it or not, because that way his mother doesn’t have to devote too much time to thinking about what she has done to him. Even when he is injured and suffering from concussion, her instant tears are followed by her leaving for a crawl-back into Dougie’s bed. She even seems surprised when Peter eventually runs away from him, disgusted not only by his mother, whom he had believed to be ill, but by his father who is sleeping with one of Julia’s friends. Peter is the genuine tragedy of Julia’s life, a little boy tossed aside who seeks refuge with his grandfather, one of the more stalwart characters of his life, and only develops a grain of respect for his mother after she has been gravely injured during her work in the anti-aircraft battery where she gains praise for heroism.

Peter ‘s reaction to her becomes compassionate with some pity, and he is not even troubled when he finally encounters Dougie, who continues his happily amoral trot through life. What is most intriguing is that Julia finally reacts to Dougie as she might have done years earlier. Before she grew up.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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