The Rescue Man, debut novel of Anthony Quinn, is slow moving tale of a man changed by war. Set in Liverpool throughout World War Two, it is clearly a love letter to the city by Liverpool-born Quinn. It focusses on a love triangle between a historian and two photographers.
Tom Baines is a quiet architectural historian in his late thirties. He lives in the past, researching a book about Liverpool’s buildings which he somehow never manages to finish. In 1939, his mentor recommends he research a misunderstood Liverpool architect, Peter Eames who mysteriously committed suicide leaving his work never properly recognised.
When war breaks out Baines volunteers as a rescue man, working in teams to extract people and bodies from the bombed buildings he was supposedly cataloguing for his book. This experience, and the people he works with, have a profound impact and slowly his life changes. His language coarsens, thanks to mixing with the men on his team, and in response to his publisher’s request to speed up his research of the city’s buildings before they are destroyed by bombs, he meets husband and wife photographers Richard and Bella.
The romance is a long time coming and the first half of the book seems to meander along without urgency, Tom is a quiet, academic unassuming man and I had to work at sticking with the book. I wondered what there was in him which attracted the bright flower, Bella.
Tom Baines says, ‘It was only when war came and I started doing rescue woke that I sort of… woke up.’ Unfortunately the book is a third through before we reach 1940 and the bombing of Liverpool and two-thirds through before the pace picks up. There is a sense of time being suspended until the final quarter of the book is reached and, as the brutality of the bombing clears street after Liverpool street and many of the historic buildings Baines was meant to catalogue are reduced to rubble, Tom hits crisis point.
The pace is not helped as the story of Peter Eames is told via diary extracts which are stop start with substantial gaps. The themes of wartime destruction – not only of buildings, but of trust between family, lovers and friends – are mirrored between the Eames and Baines timelines. Architect Eames builds, rescue man Baines negotiates the rubble left by the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids. And both are key players in love triangles where trust is betrayed and marriage vows broken.
This is Anthony Quinn’s debut novel and though thoughtful like his later books, it lacks their narrative pace. If you are familiar with Liverpool, which I’m not, it will be a more fulfilling read. There is no doubt about Quinn’s beautiful writing, simply that the subject – and the perhaps over-use of the Liverpool setting – did not hold me. Not his best book but well worth reading if you know his later work such as Freya.
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