On the cover of this unassuming book which I bought in a UK charity shop, one of the critics refers to it as a “his masterpiece”. I am highly skeptical of praise like this because I read a lot of books that are very good but few indeed could be classed as masterpieces. However, having completed the story of a troubled family in a small postwar English town, I agree that Bragg reaches near perfection in everything he relates.
From the prologue onwards I was captivated. His descriptions are so clear and concise that within a few marvelous pages you feel you have personally experienced places like the mental hospital along with his characters. The prologue indeed reads almost like poetry.
He sets the scene so well describing the geography of northern England largely through the first hand experience of the characters as they walk, cycle or take public transport, cars being still a luxury item. There are solid historic references as well, starting as so often in England with the conquering Romans. He makes sure we know the prevailing weather and the affect it has on peoples’ mood. We are made aware of the varying degrees of poverty in the town that is contrasted with the affluence of a few people who can avoid a hand to mouth existence. Even the architecture soon seems familiar.
Bragg also brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the country immediately after WWII. He describes the suffering and flashbacks of the returnees who had experienced ferocious combat. He tells us of the different ways in which they and their families handle this suffering or are consumed by it.
He contrasts the return of a very changed working class with a country that despite the war has changed little in the lack of opportunity it affords and its grinding poverty. With all the dangers of warfare and the frequent gaps in military leadership, returning serviceman were a highly emancipated group who were not willing to subject themselves once again to the privilege and class prejudice that was endemic in the country pre-war. At the same time there were few ways out, they returned to the same jobs, the same class structure, the same overt and subtle snobbery. Further frustration resulted from slow political reform and the fact many necessities of life remained unavailable or in short supply after the wartime disruption.
This is the England I recall from my childhood and adolescence. I even had a ration card despite being born more than five years after the war ended.
Where Bragg excels is in his description of family life and its tenuous happiness. He charts the tight interplay between Sam, Ellen and their son, Joe, to whom Sam is a stranger after his years serving in the Far East. Argument and tension is described from the perspective of all three family members. Such is his balance and insight that we can readily imagine saying and doing the things this couple and their child do. Indeed some of these arguments are ones we have surely experienced ourselves, we have said these things and had these feelings.
The rift between father and son is especially poignant; they both love each dearly but are remote from one another. Joe’s wartime separation from his father and the indulgence of his mother plus his aunt, uncle and their boarder have left him ill-equipped to know how to satisfy a father that desperately wants too toughen him up. At the same time Sam is by nature a kind and generous man, he has seen all types of brutality but he struggles to avoid it entering his home. Ellen tries hard to recapture the depth of understanding she had with her husband before he had to leave but they see things differently now, especially Joe’s upbringing.
Other writers would get some of these components correct, Bragg gets them all right.
Also he has a wonderful ending in store for you that is consistent with the book’s honesty and avoids sentimentality and cheap tricks.
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