When I first heard that A.L. Kennedy’s new novel was about a tailgunner in an RAF Lancaster bomber in World War II, I was frankly astonished. Nothing in this writer’s previous work or life, as far as I was acquainted with them, apart from the fact that she writes quite frequently from a male point of view, made her choice of subject seem anything other than utterly surprising—and risky. She is one of the most respected of younger British fiction writers, especially admired for her stylistic virtuosity and droll, dark sense of humor; but her novels and short stories to date have been mostly about personal relationships, domestic conflicts, and various kinds of social and psychological dysfunction like abuse, addiction, and depression, set against a contemporary background, especially in Scotland, where she was born in 1965 and brought up. How, I wondered, would such a writer set about recreating the experience of an RAF tailgunner in the war that ended in 1945? And why?
Of course women have written well about combat, the sharp edge of war, especially in historical fiction. But I can’t think offhand of any novel about the Allied bombing campaigns of World War II, or indeed about aerial warfare in general, by a woman writer, and the best-known examples of this subgenre are certainly by men, whether based on personal experience like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, or on research like Len Deighton’s Bomber.
It is not hard to understand why this should be so. When gender roles were still clearly defined, the technical aspects of aerial warfare held more fascination for male writers and readers than for their female counterparts, as did the particular type of heroism it required. The home-based pilots and aircrews of the RAF in World War II experienced combat differently from other servicemen, who were often separated from their homes and families for years on end, but by all accounts suffered more boredom and discomfort than danger most of the time. The airmen, in contrast, made frequent, brief, terrifyingly dangerous sorties, either to engage the attacking enemy (spurring their Spitfires and Hurricanes into the sky in the Battle of Britain) or to rain down destruction on his homeland in the teeth of ferocious resistance; returning after a few hours, if they were lucky, to rest and recover in relatively civilized conditions, and prepare themselves for another sortie, very soon. For soldiers and sailors, going into battle was usually determined by chance rather than choice. Fighter pilots and bomber aircrews were volunteers, existentially responsible for their own fates.
The French structuralist critic A.J. Greimas distinguished three basic types of narrative, which may be combined: the disjunctive (i.e., stories of departure and return), the performative, and the contractual. Popular versions of the World War II bombing story, especially in movies, usually combine the first two. Departure and return constitute its essential structure, and pose the narrative question with the primary emotional pull: Will our heroes …