Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 14 December 2017
My rating: 5 stars
A while ago I posted on my blog a guest post from Clare Harvey about The Night Raid and its historical elements. The novel is inspired by the real-life Dame Laura Knight, a well-known artist at the time of WWII (see the 17 December 2017 guest post), but many of the incidents described are imagined. So I began reading The Night Raid with interest when I received a copy from the author a few months ago. My review is entirely voluntary I must stress though somewhat delayed owing to my habit of a. reading several books at once, b. a trip to Africa and c. receiving a contract to publish my second novel.
Anyway, back to the book in hand – in short, I found The Night Raid a wonderfully satisfying read. Ms Harvey has succeeded in creating authentic, memorable characters within an engaging story and her writing is stunning. Richly detailed prose stirs the senses and brings the period settings to life – fittingly, much of the description feels like it is through an artist’s eyes.
Artist dame Laura arrives in her home city of Nottingham to paint a gun factory to help bolster civilian morale and ends up painting two of the factory workers, Zelah and Violet. Both work in the factory under their boss, George Handford. The oppressive atmosphere of the factory is powerfully conveyed, becoming an almost malevolent force.
The sound is like an air raid, but contained and syncopated, a rhythmic thud-roar, just at the level where vibrations fill her body and push out thought.
All four point-of-view characters are affected by the war in various ways; they all face dilemmas in the present that arise from their pasts. Zelah, the welfare officer running from the pain of losing her wartime love, is the character I identified with the most.
Once she starts here she’ll become part of the machinery itself, Zelah thinks, a fleshy cog in the factory, not a real person at all.
It is perfect.
I particularly enjoyed the changing relationship Zelah has with fellow worker Violet, a feisty, no-nonsense girl who ‘gets into trouble’ after an impulsive night with an airman. The novel highlights very well society’s even-less-tolerant attitude to unmarried mothers in those days, and the hardships that women suffered as a result. Violet’s quiet desperation after becoming pregnant got me rooting for her; she is practical and tough but also vulnerable.
Violet’s plight is contrasted with Zelah’s restrained approach to life and love. Believing her love life over, she is reluctantly attracted to her boss George Handford (who has a stern reputation but is in fact turns out to be relatively liberal as a boss, letting Zelah set up a creche for women workers). Misunderstandings between Zelah and Mr Handford ramp up the drama, and Laura is forced to examine her marriage to fellow artist Harold, an older man, once the more successful of the pair. Laura’s journey to the discovering the truths of the past is subtly handled. Then there’s a life-changing crisis for all the characters with the (imagined) German attack on the gun factory… (I was startled and a bit upset by the abrupt change in Zelah’s situation and had to skip ahead to see if what I thought happened actually had.)
Be warned this is not a light, feel-good read, though it is an absorbing one. It has serious themes, such as the need to be true to oneself versus the duty to conform to social expectations. Love, loss, the vagaries of fate and circumstance – all are woven into The Night Raid. The war exacts its price on all the novel’s characters. As Zelah observes: The war is a sharpened blade, with love on one side and tragedy on the other, and all of us just balanced on the slim edge in between.