Touted as "the classic novel of the London Blitz", Nigel Balchin's Darkness Falls from the Air certainly is one of the most authentic novels I've read so far about London during WWII. I think the only contemporary author who has come close in matching the feel of the period is Sarah Waters. Balchin published the novel in 1942 just after the height of the Blitz when more then 40,000 civilians were killed and more than a million homes were flattened or damaged. At the time Balchin was working as a psychologist for the Personnel Section of the War Office.
This seems to be one of those forgotten classics (though I think he was a fairly popular novelist at the time he was writing) which I think I never would have come across on my own had not Caroline chosen it for her Literature and War readalong. It did manage to garner a place on the Guardian's list of 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read (the War & Travel section). Balchin was writing from the immediacy of the time and notable is the fact that the end of the war was still years away so the outcome was still uncertain (though in the novel and perhaps amongst those living through it, there was a feeling Britain would be victorious).
"'I think it's important to win this war,' I said.
'I agree,' said Carter. 'But I think we shall, you know. I doubt if we shall deserve to, but still--'
'What makes you think so? I said.
Carter looked at his cigarette.
'Because I believe the mess we're in here is probably less than the mess in Germany. After all, imagine a country where the government runs everything--!'"
Told in first person Bill Sarratt recounts the events of his daily life with wit and detachment. Night and day London is bombed but life goes on. Bill is a civil servant with a mind numbing job trying to press through public policy to help win the war, but the amount of bureaucratic red tape he comes up against is almost ludicrous unless you've worked in a government job and understand just what a frighteningly realistic portrait Balchin paints. There are endless meetings where little is accomplished and needless reorganizations moving personnel from one position to another where they can apply their skills in the least effective way and train someone new with no skills as a replacement.
"'By the way,' I said, 'Establishment think it would be a nice idea to transfer Giles.'
'Giles?' said Lennox, 'Why?'
'Presumably because he knows his present job and is doing it well.'
'Can you spare him?' said Lennox.
'Of course not.'
'Have you told them so?'
I said, 'I've told them quite a lot.'
Lennox said hurriedly, 'Well, look here, don't you quarrel with them, Sarratt. It doesn't do any good. I'll speak to Lymes.'
'Thank you,' I said.
'Who have you spoken to?' he said, still anxious.
'That's all right, I'll speak to Lymes.'
'They are a bunch of incompetents.' I said.
'Yes,' said Lennox. 'It's a frightfully difficult job, of course. You don't want to quarrel with them, you know. They're very powerful.'
'They're a menace,' I said."
It's with the same wit and detachment that Sarratt deals with his personal life as well. His wife Marcia is having an affair with a sensitive but needy poet who hasn't been able to write during the bombardment being faced with so much ugliness. It's with Sarratt's knowledge that she is seeing Stephen, also a married man, but he sees it as a meaningless fling that Marcia will soon tire of. As a matter of fact she has promised to end it, but is being emotionally blackmailed and can't seem to extricate herself easily from the relationship. Eventually the constant bombing, against which the story takes place, the difficulties Sarratt faces at the Ministry and Marcia's inability to make a firm decision about what she wants begins wearing on him.
The pressures of work and love are palpable. Bill finally manages to organize a committee that is prepared to make some real decisions when the rug is pulled out from under by colleagues who promise one thing then don't deliver. Personal egos seem to get in the way of real progress with an eye to helping the war effort. And then Bill finally gives Marcia an ultimatum. She seems to be forever calling it quits with Stephen who threatens her with dire endings, and being tenderhearted she refuses to cut him off. It's obvious he loves her but he won't demand she leave Stephen, telling her only she must make up her own mind (which in a way felt like a different sort of emotional blackmail). It was the conversations and struggles between Bill and Marcia, the personal bits, that I enjoyed the most. Obviously it must all come to a head.
This is a really interesting novel, which I'm happy to have read, though I must admit I did struggle a little with it along the way. There are lots of bon mots and witty dialogue that I very much appreciated and felt were well done, but occasionally so much Ministry talk made my eyes glaze over just a little. Still, it was a wonderful and artfully presented satire, which I am guessing Balchin created from first hand experience, and therefore very believable. It's a short novel and excellent in its descriptions of what it might have been like living and working in London during the Blitz--the constant bombing day after day (so much so that Bill and Marcia would often forgo sitting in a bomb shelter and would often be out wining and dining instead), dealing with the black out, the general attitude of going on with life despite it all and perhaps with a looser sense of morality than in regular times (at least that it seems to often be portrayed in literature). And it's presented very subtly as well with just enough detail to be effective and realistic without there being any sensory overload (which I think often happens in historical fiction).
Darkness Falls from the Air is well worth searching out if you have an interest in reading about WWII. You can read Caroline's thoughts on the book here. Do also check out Skiourophile's review of Balchin's The Small Back Room here. It deals with similar themes.
By the way I've just started reading Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs & No Oranges, which is a diary Hodgson began writing in June 1940. I'm curious to see what it was like living during the Blitz by ordinary people. I'm sure I have more nonfiction books on the topic and will see what I can dig out.
Next up for June is Len Deighton's Bomber.