I’m going to start doing a series featuring books from my shelves because it’s something I love to read about in other blogs: accounts of personal book collections; favourite childhood reads; books that belonged to parents and grandparents; treasured flea market finds, that sort of thing.
I’m kicking off the series with Darkness Falls From the Air by Nigel Balchin, a rather obscure English author from the 40s and 50s. Darkness Falls is set during the second World War and written while it was happening. It was published in 1942 and the copy from my shelves is the ‘Services Edition’, published in 1945.
I found this book in the family bookcase when I was in my early teens and read it without understanding it. However, I loved the writing style, especially the dialogue, which is not how people speak in Malaysia, but was strangely familiar and pleasing anyway.
The novel is about Bill Sarratt, an English civil servant who is living in London during the worst of the Blitz and how he deals with the bureaucratic nonsense at his office, and also the affair his wife, Marcia, is having with a melodramatic poet.
I found it a fascinating and horrifying read at fourteen. Bill’s wit and sarcasm was very funny and alien, and his lifestyle exciting and glamorous despite his wry and disparaging descriptions of how the war had disrupted London nightlife and made everything dreary and difficult. Then there was the situation with his wife, which I did not comprehend at first and when I did, did not believe. I still find it a little hard to imagine a husband being so cool about his wife’s infidelity, but it is very much who Bill Sarratt is. Also, I happen to be currently reading Balchin’s Separate Lies (originally published as A Way Through the Wood) and the protagonist is another man who is strangely cool and calm when he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Perhaps this was something Balchin experienced in his personal life and was trying to work through in his fiction. In anycase, I find that, at fifty, it’s still something I am interested in thinking about. Certainly, in both books, the two men’s reactions are very much in character and not at all implausible. It’s my own feelings that are at odds with how they behave, but that makes the stories more interesting.
My copy of Darkness Falls belonged to my late mother and was ‘produced for the Services Central Book Depot Artillery House, Handel Street, London, W.C. 1 for circulation to the Fighting Forces of the Allied Nations’.
I don’t know when my mother acquired the book. She would have been twelve in 1945 and the story is quite a grim one, although told in a light, offhand tone. However, I wasn’t much older when I first read it and, anyway, don’t all twelve-year-olds read books too mature for them? Her signature on the epigraph page is a bit wobbly so she probably wasn’t much past twelve.
On the last page of the novel, she writes ‘The End’ a couple of times as if practising her penmanship. It’s precious and one reason why I will never part with this book.