After the Bombing, by Clare Morrall, tells the stories of two significant time periods in the life of Alma Braithwaite. At the height of the Second World War Alma is a boarder at a girls’ school on the edge of Exeter when it is bombed. This and subsequent events linked to the war have a profound effect on the fifteen year old. Along with so many others she must deal with death, destruction, upheaval and personal loss. Despite the trauma she finds comfort in friendship, music and a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex.
Twenty-one years later Alma is living alone in her large family home and teaching music at the school she once attended. A new head teacher is appointed bringing with her a desire to modernise the trusted regimes. Alma resists the changes being imposed causing the traditionalist and the innovator to clash. However, it is the reappearance of a figure from Alma’s past, one who shared with her the worst experiences of the war years, which forces her to question the life she has chosen to live.
The book tells the stories of these two time periods in parallel, gradually revealing the full horror of the events which have coloured Alma’s life. The narrative immerses the reader in the personal shock and numbness which followed the terrifying aerial bombardments. With so many suffering losses Alma felt it was inappropriate to indulge in visible grief. The suppression of feeling perhaps explains why it took her so long to move on.
The author conveys how life goes on, how humans have to cope with whatever is happening around them because they have no other choice. Alongside grief can be moments of happiness. There was fear when aircraft could be heard approaching, horror as bodies were dug out of rubble, but also joy as the young people learned to dance to the new jazz.
The impact of Alma’s war time experiences was highlighted by the lack of colour in the life that followed. She clung to her past alongside a hope that the missing may return, her messy home a metaphor for her reluctance to do more than deal with the superficial aspects of her day to day existence.
It is a sign of quality writing when a story of this depth can be described as an easy read. There was much to consider yet it entertained. A rich and satisfying story populated by characters who will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. Authentic, poignant and subtly told.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre.