As any regular reader of my blog will know, I am a huge Clare Morrall fan. And I was not disappointed by After the Bombing. As with all Morrall’s novels, the observations of character are spot-on and so poignant. She peoples her novels with characters who feel real.
Twin story strands tell the story of Alma Braithwaite, before and after the bombing of her school near Exeter in May 1942, and in 1963 in a modern world which has moved on from the war. But Alma still remembers. “She’s conscious of sitting on a swing that has been steady for a long time and is starting to move again, gently but perceptibly, backwards and forwards, disturbing her equilibrium.”
The novel opens with the British bombing of Lübeck in March 1942, the raid which famously made Hitler pick up a copy of the Baedecker tourist guide and select at random the English cities of Bath, Norwich, York, Canterbury, and Exeter. That is how 15-year old Alma and her schoolfriends Curls, Giraffe and Natalie are forced to run from Merrivale, the boarding house at their girls’ school Goldwyns on the outskirts of Exeter, to the bomb shelter. When they emerge, Merrivale has gone.
The four girls, in that unspecified limbo between girl and woman, lodge in a mens’ hall of residence at the nearby university, living alongside male students for the first time. The influences there change their lives just as much as the bombing did, with freedoms they have never guessed exist, and the gentle presence of mathematics lecturer Robert Gunner. They are introduced by the men to the Lindy Hop, a vibrant, energetic dance which the girls, though initially nervous and suspicious, come to love dancing.
War is ever-present, a character of its own. There is a poignant scene where Alma and her brother Duncan, on a brief visit home from the war in an unspecified hot country, go back to their family home in Exeter after their parents’ death. Searching for some semblance of normality, they try to play tennis on the grass court. The grass has grown too long but they play anyway, and in their diving for the balls and their laughter, the reader gets a glimpse of their pre-war life and a sign of how everything is now different… after the bombing.
There are parallels in the 1942 and 1963 storylines: a concert which never takes place, flirtations, unexpected death and unexpected love. One of those books which, when I finished it, I wanted to re-read immediately.
‘After the Bombing’ by Clare Morrall [published Sceptre]