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; Le