Day, the title of this novel by AL Kennedy, does not refer to a period of twenty-four hours, but to Alfred Francis Day. Alfie. Rear gunner in a Lancaster in World War Two and now extra on the set of a war film. Past and present are mingled together as he starts to remember things he would rather forget. The passages in the bomber are electrifying, in their detail and understanding. The cold, the smell, the fear, how the professionalism of their training kicks in when the action starts. It is totally believable..
The timelines are mixed here as Alfred’s memories are inter-mingled: when Alfred was a member of the bomber crew; his time in a prisoner-of-war camp; and as a film extra in 1949. Where the novel is not so clear, for me, is the intermingling of these three timelines, though after fifty pages everything started to clarify. If you find this, persist and everything will fall into place.
Through Alfred’s memories and his conversations with Ivor, his post-war employer at a bookshop, his bomber crew and the other film extras, we start to piece together the story of his life. It is particularly poignant when he falls in love, heavily, after a fleeting encounter during a bombing raid in London. He meets Joyce in a shelter and from then on she fills his head, when his head should be concentrating on shooting down enemy fighters as his crew drops bombs on Hamburg. ‘Turning his head and turning his head while the heath beyond him dreams, his head pressing back in his pillow and eyes closed and no clear memory he can see, only the wonder that her heartbeat was everywhere in her skin.’
Alfie is a complex character. He is a small man who reads to educate himself. He is nicknamed ‘Boss’ by his flight crew even though he is not the skipper. In flight training, he asks Sergeant Hartnell to show him how to fight and win. ‘Look, son… You’re not the first. Happens quite often in fact. Lads come along and they ask me for help… help with an argument they’ve got to settle back home…’ He tells Alfred his best bet is to hit them from behind with a bit of pipe, but when Alfred gets his chance he throws bricks.
We learn most about him as he remembers his mother and father, both of whom die during the war. In Alfred’s head, his mother and Joyce seem connected and he learns that memories are fickle, the things we would rather forget are the ones that return. ‘Some memories, the ones you’d rather keep – the more you tried to look at them, the more they wore away.’
‘Day’ by AL Kennedy [UK: Vintage]
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