A multi-faceted, thought-provoking and evocative story.

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linda hepworth Avatar


London, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester, Coventry, Exeter, Plymouth, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow (to name just a few) are the cities which immediately spring to mind when I think about the WWII blitz bombing raids, which caused such devastating damage to the UK’s manufacturing capacity and the deaths of so many civilians. However, until I read this well-researched novel I hadn’t read anything about the Belfast Blitz. Through a combination of reading this book and doing some subsequent research, I now know that in total approximately 1,000 people were killed, many more were injured and bombs hit half of the houses in the city, leaving 100,000 people homeless. During the Easter Sunday raid (the second of four carried out between 7th April and 6th May 1941) some 900 people died as a result of the bombing and 1,500 were injured: apart from in London, this was the greatest loss of life in any night raid during the Blitz.
Central to this gripping story, which explores the impact on civilians as they struggle to adjust to these harrowing events, is the middle-class Bell family: Dr Philip Bell, his wife Florence and their three children – twenty-one-year-old Audrey, working in the local tax office and engaged to Richard (also a doctor); eighteen-year-old Emma, working as a volunteer First Aider and tentatively exploring her developing attraction to Sylvia, a more senior volunteer and finally, their brother Paul, who is in his early teens and still inclined to see the war as a bit of an adventure. However, it is essentially from the perspectives of the three women that the story is told and I enjoyed the many ways in which the author very effectively used their personal experiences to explore a range of contemporaneous issues.
It’s human nature that during any crisis we are often forced to take stock of our lives, to question what’s important to us and what we need to do to achieve that. As the story begins to unfold it becomes clear that all three women are struggling to find ways to reconcile their inner feelings and desires with external expectations. Audrey is becoming increasingly ambivalent about her impending marriage. Although she loves (and is very good at) her job, she knows that she will have to give it up when she gets married and wonders whether she loves Richard enough to be prepared to make that sacrifice. Emma has fallen in love with Sylvia but knows that their tentatively developing sexual relationship, although not actually illegal, must be kept secret. Through Florence’s narrative, the reader discovers that she continues to mourn a long-lost love, feelings which have been reawakened by the death and destruction which now dominates all their lives. How each of them deals with their personal conflicts will be shaped by their experiences of loss on a greater and more devastating scale than they could ever have imagined.
Although I enjoyed how the author developed these main characters, what impressed me most about her storytelling was her powerful and deeply moving evocation of the impact of the bombing raids on individuals and on communities. She captured the fear generated as people heard the planes overhead and listened to the sound of bombs falling; of their shock as they emerged after each raid to find the landscape of their city changed almost beyond recognition; of the desperate plight of those who were now homeless; of the frantic search for news of family and friends who were missing; of the authorities struggling to deal with vast numbers of dead bodies to be retrieved and identified and of hospitals being overwhelmed as they tried to treat the injured. Without going into any gratuitously explicit detail, she captured the scale of the horrors faced by the emergency services and First Aiders as they dealt with the aftermath of each raid.
The fact that the book was divided into three parts (‘The Dockside Raid’, The Easter Raid’ and ‘The Fire Raids’) allowed the author to explore not only the cumulative effect of the destruction and its impact on the community, but also on how this came to shape the decision-making of the three main characters. Although no one in Belfast escaped totally unscathed, as the main targets (military, the docklands and manufacturing) were located in the working-class areas of the city, disproportionately it was the homes of the poorer families which were either razed to the ground or so badly damaged that they were uninhabitable. By using a number of different characters from these areas who had links with the Bell family, the author offered insights into the particular privations faced by people who had little to start with and ended up with even less.
I admired the way in which the author so effectively used her considerable research to add authenticity to her storytelling. Her descriptions of the two fire raids (close to 100,000 incendiaries were dropped, more than in almost any other raid in the UK) were so evocative that I could hardly bear to continue reading. The resilience of the community as they pulled together restore some semblance of order to their devastated city was in sharp contrast to an intervention from Winston Churchill. Apparently the morning after the Fire Raids he phoned to speak to Sir Wilfred Spender, the head of the civil service, to enquire about what was being done to protect Sir Edward Carson’s statue … I was delighted to discover that Sir Wilfred, much to Churchill’s fury, told him in no uncertain terms that all available resources were being deployed to ‘help remove the living from buildings condemned, and the deceased from the rubble’! A timely reminder that politicians being out of touch with the lives of their voters isn’t a new phenomenon!
Although explorations of many types of loss permeate this deeply moving story, it is also a paean to resilience, to the importance of family and community, to love and, ultimately, about a belief in regeneration and hope. The fact that it also taught me something new, and encouraged me to read even more about this period, has made this a much more thought-provoking and memorable read than I’d anticipated … always a bonus!