Darkness Falls from the Air

Portrayals of the Blitz don’t come any more authentic than Nigel Balchin’s Darkness Falls from the Air. First published in 1942, it’s the story of Bill Sarratt, a civil servant in an unnamed Ministry, who spends his days battling red tape, his evenings trying to comprehend his wife’s infidelity and his nights dodging bombs as he roams the streets of London, trying to hold himself together.

The book never quite reaches its potential. The structure is repetitive, with endless break-ups and reconciliations between Sarratt’s wife and her charismatic, solipsistic lover (‘Stephen’s all right as farce, but he’d be poison as drama’), and there’s too much time spent on long meetings about Sarratt’s policy for industry, like some bizarre collaboration between Alastair Darling and Graham Greene. But it’s a wonderfully written novel, with a clipped and bitter humour that resonates beyond the story, and becomes, as you realise the inevitable ending, deeply moving in its bleak simplicity.

And besides, who could resist descriptions like this:

Peggy was exactly as usual. I never knew what to do about Peggy. She was at least fifteen years older than Stephen, very plain and no particular shape. She had two moods — vivacious and serious, of which the one you were having was the worse.

This man, Willie Hubbard, was a most unpleasant-looking structure. He was very tall … very thin and narrow-shouldered, and about the last six inches was a bald egg of head. He had small, very dark eyes, a flowing black moustache, and he was wearing a red velvet smoking jacket and bright yellow corduroy trousers. He looked like a painting by somebody who couldn’t draw and had a nasty mind.

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