January 2008

Understanding one man’s war

By A.L. Kennedy
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From the start he had too much to do: breathing, sleeping, waking, eating . . . they just went on and on. For someone already wounded when he goes into the Royal Air Force, Alfred Day has no reason to hope that things will get better for him as a tail gunner in a bomber with 27 trips scheduled over Germany and they don't.

Looking back on his time in the service five years later, as an extra on a film that is set during the war, Alfie finds a certain relief reliving times and behavior that had slipped into an undifferentiated past, and, finally, arrives at some form of healing. It isn't easy, either for him or the reader, but Day, A.L. Kennedy's knockout account of the process, is even more rewarding than it is challenging.

The challenge lies in her elliptical writing style, which bends Alfie's history into at least seven different planes that often flow into each other almost indistinguishably. Yet, remarkably, the reader, following blindly, never puzzles for long over context. Whether Alfred is growing up; bombing Germany; meeting his dear love Joyce; committing the most grievous crime of his life; enduring his time as a German POW; remembering it all; or, in his most recent time frame, rebuilding his life, you're there with him, established in time and place because of Kennedy's extraordinary skill.

The Scottish writer has not received the attention she deserves on this side of the Atlantic, although her three collections of short stories, five novels and two works of nonfiction, not to mention numerous prizes, would seem to demand it. Day may make the difference with its eloquent insight into the emotions of hard-bitten soldiers, and the hum of humor that underlies all but the most wrenching events.

Unforgettably, Kennedy tells her story of damaged men, damaged women and damaged lands. In the end she gives us the best that can be expected, a rueful close that shows Alfred and Joyce just like happy people.

Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.

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By A.L. Kennedy
ISBN 9780307266835

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