Book review: Shadows in a Photograph

Shadows in a Photograph --- by David McMichael (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Shadows in a Photograph — by David McMichael (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The novel Shadows in a Photograph by David McMichael (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2016) describes life from the viewpoint of Peter Waring. The story begins not too long after the Great War ends and focuses at first on Peter’s boyhood exile to Cumberland. He and his mother must leave London to live, fatherless and husbandless, with relatives in the north of England. McMichael is a master of setting. His description of Peter’s departure from the railway station and the locomotive, “A black monster, it stood there, wisps of steam escaping with a faint hiss from around its pistons” evokes Harry Potter’s departure for Hogwarts.

In Cumberland, Peter meets two girls: the tomboy, Jamie, and the pretty and somewhat older, Jordan. They resurface later as young women as the story follows Peter into medical school and into the Royal Air Force as an RAF doctor attached to Bomber Command.

Second World War afficionados will appreciate how McMichael lays out the familiar milestones of those early years of war: the removal of signposts throughout the British Isles, the Blackout, Dunkirk, London’s Windmill Theatre (famous for never closing), the fifty destroyers that Roosevelt sent in answer to Churchill’s plea, Churchill himself, his speeches, the importance of radar (‘RDF,’ so-called), the ‘Famous Few,’ including Douglas Bader—the pilot who had lost both legs, the controversy of Leigh-Mallory’s ‘Big Wing,’ and then how, at the crucial stage of the Battle of Britain, Hitler ordered his Luftwaffe to switch from attacking Fighter Command airfields to bombing London.

Back then, everyone in Britain would likely have been a fan of ‘ITMA’—‘It’s That Man Again,’ the hugely popular radio (wireless!) show starring comedian Tommy Handley and his gang of characters. Their catchphrases were famous throughout the war years and McMichael refers on more than one occasion to ITMA’s memorable Mrs Mopp: “It’s being so cheerful what keeps me going;” Also: “Can I do you now, Sir?” And let’s not forget: “TTFN,” which, as everyone should know, stands for “Ta ta for now.”

On a more tragic vein, McMichael’s novel dwells, from time to time, on the horrible burn injuries that can be sustained by aircrew when their planes catch fire. The achievements of the East Grinstead burns unit plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, feature prominently in the book. Of course, the novel’s lead character, Peter Waring, becomes a doctor himself, and readers will expect some in-depth details of the doctoring life. They will not be disappointed by the amputation scene or by the delivery of a baby.

McMichael’s novel is a compendium of compelling scenes, rendered with astonishing care: A WAAF nurse gives Peter his first experience of sex (“Here, let me show you what a woman likes. This woman at least.”); a close call with an exploding bomb (“He could see nothing other than a blood-red curtain, hear nothing but a ringing as if all the bells in the world had been set in motion, . . .”); Peter and Jordan kiss each other (“. . . frantically, violently, almost brutally, open-mouthed, . . .”).

Later in the novel, Peter’s flight in a Wellington bomber on a mission over Stuttgart ends with a crash landing in northern France. Peter and the Wellington’s pilot, Beal, are taken in by Marie-Louise who works for the French Resistance. The chapters that follow are among my favorites and remind me, in some ways, of Flying Colours, one of the Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester. In Forester’s novel, the Royal Navy’s Captain Horatio Hornblower is in France with wounded fellow officer, Lieutenant Bush, and they are hiding from Napoleon’s troops—just as in McMichael’s novel, RAF Flight Lieutenant Peter Waring and wounded fellow officer, Squadron Leader Beal, are hiding from the Nazis. Both heroes find themselves houseguests of beautiful women: Marie in Hornblower’s case, and in Waring’s case, her name is Marie-Louise. The similarities soon end, but the comparison is interesting and entertaining, as is McMichael’s entire novel, from start to end: Rich in detail, Shadows in a Photograph by David McMichael is a fascinating and moving novel that embraces the gamut of emotions.

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