A Good War by Patrick Bishop

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A Good War by Patrick Bishop

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: In the skies the Battle of Britain rages, but on the ground the pilots and their earthbound comrades spend their evenings dancing and drinking and chatting up the local girls. The local girls for their part are not as shy and moralistic as they might have been a generation earlier. There is a war on. Quiet Polish pilot Tomaszewski gets caught up in the machinations of the Irish soldier Gerry Cunningham and there begins a personal conflict of love and loyalty that will linger throughout the remainder of the war.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: November 2008
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
ISBN: 978-0340979006

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In 1984 Gerry Cunningham and his wife return yet again for the annual reunion in the small French town of Vercourt. The same speeches, the same memories, the same stories of the glory days. Gerry hates the remembering, but comes anyway. After all, it is expected. And his wife reassures him that it's never as bad as he thinks it is going to be.

This year is the same as ever, except the emotion seems to be stronger as they get older, rather than to dissipate as might have been expected.

Then as he makes his rounds of the room after the dinner, he comes across a face half-remembered. Not a normal attendee at the annual service. It's me, Tommy, I've come back.

Tommy is Adam Tomaszewski, a Pole who flew with the RAF during World War II… and this is the story of his war. Adam had wanted to fly from being a child and coming across a crashed flier on the family farm back in Poland. A short spell of thinking he had a vocation for the priesthood didn't change that basic longing for being in a crate up in the sky.

In better times, he might have found better ways to fly, but we don't get to choose our times and so we find him in a Hurricane whispering a prayer for God to grant me one more day. War is a day-at-a-time kind of a time. For everyone.

That is what comes over most strongly in Bishop's debut novel: the fact that decisions are taken in war-time that would be more considered in days of peace. Big decisions and small ones. Decisions by important people and the unknown. This is a story of the unknown ones: the pilot, the infantryman, the resistance and the collaborators and the girls and the men who just kept on keeping on, while nations fought out their ideologies.

Even the small people were capable of being noble. Not all of them were, however. Some chose not to be. Others just made choices that had that effect in the end. Some, maybe, as individuals were simply not up to that measure. At the time, most of them didn't think about it. They just did what the felt was right, or knew wasn't as wrong as the alternative, or simply they did what they wanted because it might be the last chance they got. Morality shifts under siege.

These are the ideas that lurk in the background of A Good War.

The foreground finds Tommy meeting Gerry. Cunningham is an Irishman, full of the blarney and the charm, and throwing money around like confetti, and collecting the girls along the way. Tommy is quiet and foreign and has barely been kissed.

Between them is Moira. And a single act of betrayal.

Tide and time wait for no man and the war whirls them all apart as quickly as it brought them together.

Until it swirls back again and the men find themselves behind enemy lines, with love and hate between them, but other more pressing concerns to distract their personal animosities.

Patrick Bishop's day job as a foreign correspondent first took him to the front line of war in the Falklands Conflict in 1982, and he has covered every major battleground since. No doubt it was seeing the reality of war that led to his focus on the history of conflicts and particularly their effects on the individuals involved. Acclaim as a historian followed the publication of Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, both about the pilots of WWII… and it is clear that the research for those books led directly to this first novel.

A Good War is a very personal story. The detail has the damp fetid smell of authenticity about it. The aerial battles are exhilarating and the ditchings and crashes are a mixture of resignation and panic. The early days of the SOS are full of the kind of bravado that would get a modern-day equivalent demobbed in disgrace, or worse, sent back to a lesser unit, before he could snip his butt-end into the dirt. One feels this is how it was.

Yes, he dares to suggest that for some of them, it was, in every sense, a good war. It was an adventure that they didn't want ever to be over because life was never going to be this thrilling ever again. They were getting away with it!

For others: a good war was simply one you were getting through, alive.

Then again, there were those for whom it would only prove to have been one afterwards. If it worked.

A seemingly trite title slowly gathers resonance.

Yet it remains a personal story. Adam Tomaszewski's story. A story of love and loyalty. Not quite a story of courage and heroes… because many of the men were in the true sense neither courageous nor heroic. They did what needed to be done often because it seemed the only option at the time. Motives are things we analyse afterwards.

Utterly unlyrical in the telling, A Good War still manages to be very visual. It keeps up the pace by the simple expedient of an episodic structure taking us through the three main phases of our protagonist's experience, shifting the setting from England, to North Africa, to France. Not as moving as it might have been under another author's pen, but still a thoroughly satisfying read.

For genuine observations from the Second World War take a look at Our Longest Daysor for an alternative fictional view with a more female slant, try Sing as We Go by Margaret Dickinson.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

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Buy A Good War by Patrick Bishop at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Good War by Patrick Bishop at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Good War by Patrick Bishop at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Good War by Patrick Bishop at Amazon.com.


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