This novel (by the author of the earlier and better known Sleeveless Errand) supplies a lucid account of life on the home front, and in particular the experience of the London blitz, giving voice to the trials, fears, doubts and frustrations undergone by those involved. That the author is, at least in part, concerned to buoy up the morale and resolve of her readers is clear, the narrative being littered with warnings against complacency (‘Half the country doesn’t know there’s a war on, and the other half doesn’t care’) and extolments of personal and collective responsibility. The story itself deals with the intersecting lives of a group of Londoners both during the blitz and its aftermath – a focal point is the ‘Red Sun’ pub, which (more than the bomb shelters) serves as the key place of refuge and retreat: here the protagonists convene to swap stories and grievances, and to test their experiences against the versions of events found on the radio and in the papers:
The evening went on and spread out fan-wise so that every angle of topical news was discussed […] it would do the Ministry of Information good to be present. They would know then the kind of things that really interested the public and their reactions to various questions.
This brief aside really bespeaks the novel’s underlying purpose, which is to convey the experiences and attitudes of ordinary men and women, while at the same time highlighting the disparity between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ accounts of the war, thereby helping to fill in the gaps left out by the former (‘”You read a lot in the papers about how wonderfully we’ve taken it, but you don’t read about how people’s nerves have suffered'”). Certainly notions of ‘reality’ and ‘unreality’ are present throughout, as James looks to communicate something of the emotional and psychological effects of the blitz, alongside its physical impact:
Those walls would be there one moment, and then next they would be gone, crumbling, crashing downwards into utter ruin. It seemed odd and fantastic somehow.
In this way James helps to convey some sense of how the blitz experience was processed by those who witnessed it – to describe it as ‘oddly fantastic’ may strike some as strange, yet this surely captures something of the state of sublime terror such experience was liable to induce. For others (not least the failed writer and aspiring alcoholic, George Baker) the bombardment of London proves a distinctly sobering experience – certainly George’s pondering to himself, ‘why the hell do they have to do this when a chap’s had a drink or two?’ sounds a welcome note of irony (which, it must be said, is lacking elsewhere in the novel).
The novel also pays heed to the situation of women during the war, in particular the felt demand to uphold the conventional domestic role, while at the same time seeking out ways of making oneself ‘useful’ to the war effort (prompting the assertion by one Mrs Black that ‘for women the war’s even harder than for men’). That the character of Allison, barely out of hospital after having given birth to the still-born child of her recently killed husband, seems to see this personal tragedy largely as a setback to her ability to ‘do her bit’ is hard to credit, but it does serve to underscore where the author’s priorities ultimately lay; not so much in the extensive delineation of the individual, private lives of the characters, but rather in pressing home the universality of their collective plight.