I was born (barely) while World War II was still being fought. And, even though it was over two months later, to my parents' generation it was the defining event and I grew up in its shadow. The Battle of Britain, especially, was a David-and-Goliath story to make my heart pound: the exploits of the Royal Air Force, the grim courage of the civilian population, the small beleaguered island nation against the Nazi war machine. What a drama.
Although THE CLOUDS ABOVE has all the suspense and pathos you'd expect from a novel set in those legendary days, it also goes deeper, giving a real sense of what it was like to be alive then. It evokes not only the outer signposts of a country under siege (the constant danger, profound fatigue, late trains, rationed food) but its inner landscape --- for this book, as its subtitle suggests, is a romance. Drawing on the wartime diaries of his mother, who was a nurse, Andrew Greig alternates between two voices: Len Westbourne, a young RAF pilot and Stella Gardam, a WAAF radar operator trained to spot enemy aircraft. The device makes sense both structurally and emotionally. We get the queasy normality of life on the ground versus the dizzy, sped-up horror of aerial battles. We get middle-class, university-educated, initially snobbish Stella versus gangly country boy Len, whose father works in a factory. And we get the slow, unbearably sweet progress of their love, which they first resist as too big a risk (the RAF was not known for its long lifespans), until the war makes them see that no longer is anything safe nor is there any reason to hold back.
The war in this novel is more than a conflict --- it is an enormous catalyst for change. "One day there may be a generation without a great war," Stella thinks. "What will they do then to know themselves?" Adolescent habits and attachments fall away as planes are shot down, radar huts bombed and dance halls blown to smithereens. Conventions and social divisions loosen and totter --- Stella makes friends with Maddy Phillps, an ebullient if "unrespectable" charmer and with her "posh" sergeant, Foxy Farringdon (perfect teeth, perfect nails, country house, upper-class drawl). Len draws close to a Pole serving in the RAF, Tadeusz, a bitter, tragic figure whose country has already fallen victim to Hitler. The pilots, in fact, form a club more select than any elite London establishment.
Both of them try not to become morally numb --- Len agonizes over what it means to kill, while Stella imagines a young Fraulein at a radar screen on the other side of the Channel. They struggle to live and, at the same time, prepare to die, recognizing finally that this contradiction is the human condition, not just a byproduct of war. "How can we love anyone in wartime?" Stella thinks as she and Len ride back on the train from a week's leave in the country. "It's too stupid. Then I looked round the train . . . and saw that everyone on it was going to die, sooner or later. How can we love in the face of that? Then again, how can we not? Wartime is like real life but more so."
Part of the "more so" is that war tends to knock out both past and future; life is experienced mostly in the present tense. To reflect this immediacy, Greig tells his story in short bursts, moment by moment. Some of them are unspeakable (Stella's coworker lying dead after a raid; Len blowing off a Luftwaffe pilot's head), while others are extraordinarily joyful. One summer day, Len and Stella picnic by the river and she swims naked. They have begun to allow themselves to think of marriage and children. Len imagines that he may survive; Stella, in an act of faith and hope, makes love without contraceptives. At least for the afternoon, they snatch back the future that the war has stolen from them.
Greig is a poet as well as a novelist (THE CLOUDS ABOVE is the first of his books to be published in this country) and it shows. This is a beautifully written novel, with a fresh, unsentimental use of language that feels natural to the story. It is as if the intensity of war and love awakens both Stella and Len to a fierce lyricism they might not have otherwise achieved. "I still loved flying, that was something," Len thinks. "That lift as I came unstuck from the earth again. The sense of dreamy freedom, for all the noise, as I watched dabs of clouds passing by beneath, and below them the green fields, roads, and farmhouses, as we set our course for War." Or Stella: "Len's youth and vulnerability and kisses had dragged the heart out of me, and it lay so open I wondered if it couldn't be seen beating in the moonlight."
THE CLOUDS ABOVE received excellent reviews, but it hasn't been talked about much. It should be. Get this glorious book. Read it and give it to friends. It will break your heart and also make it soar.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 21, 2011
The Clouds Above: A Novel of Love and War