When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby.
A convincing and gripping tale of a wartime love triangle entangled in intrigue and the tragedy of war. When We Fall maintains a balance between thrills, adventure and romance creating a rounded and emotional engaged tale, a rich reading experience. This is a reminder that wars are about individual actions, individual courage, it’s the little contributions that make up the bigger picture. This story explores the, sadly and predictably, neglected role of women during the Second World War and the Katyn massacre.
Kirby’s first novel The Conviction of Cora Burns was an impressive debut, an historical novel that really chimed with readers. A fusion of gripping personal stories and an exploration of the nature versus nurture debate set in nineteenth century Birmingham. When We Fall is also an historical novel but this time set in Poland and England during WWII. The idea for this novel came to Kirby, before she wrote Cora Burns, when she saw the 2008 obituary of Diana Barnato Walker, one of the women air auxiliary pilots who flew planes across Britain to fighting squadrons during the conflict. That said, this book was clearly written after Cora Burns, and has the feel of a second novel, more comfortable in style, exactly what you would expect from a really good writer. When We Fall is more confident, the writing flows naturally and the narrative is more direct and a little freer. Kirby combines momentous events and personal drama beautifully, the setting is spot on and clearly a lot of research went into this book which flavours but doesn’t encumber the story.
2010: Ninety six Polish dignitaries and relatives of the victims of Katyn were killed in the Smolensk air disaster on route to the seventieth anniversary commemoration of the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by Stalin’s army in 1940. It was a bitter blow to Poland. Almost immediately the crash attracted conspiracy theories. The original massacre was an act of genocide, of ethnic cleansing. The story here hinges on the presence of one woman among all the murdered male victims buried in the Katyn forest.
Spring 1943. Vee is forced to land the Tiger at RAF Bradwell when the weather closes in. The pilot who greets her landing is taken aback by her presence but flight sergeant Stefan Bergel, of 302 squadron, has seen female pilots before in the Polish air force. Valerie ‘Vee’ Katchatourian of the air transport auxiliary is ready for the usual sexist stuff and the conversation is a little awkward to begin with but they develop a rapport. When the weather clears, he reluctantly sets her on her way to her destination RAF Birch. The relationship with Stefan begins to bloom just as he suddenly disappears. Vee rings the airfield to be told Stefan is unavailable, no one will give her any information, his best friend says he’s well but she should forget about him. It’s not over for Vee and Stefan.
Spring, 1943: Posen, (the name in wartime Greater Germany), now Poznan. Ewa Hartman and her father run a guesthouse for German soldiers. The Hartmans are on the Volksliste, classified as German, they avoid the fate of Poles sent east to work details. Today they have a new guest Obersturmführer Heinrich Beck. He is in charge of the regional renaming project; towns, villages, and streets all have to have German names. Ewa speaks German but she is Polish at heart, unlike her father. Ewa has a Polish fiancée Stefan Bergel, last seen boarding a train for Warsaw in 1939. He became a pilot and was soon captured by the Russians. His letters from the Gorki Rest home in Moscow reassured her he was being well treated, then nothing since the spring 1940. Stefan promised to come back. He will.
There’s a plausibility in the story set England but the novel really comes to life in Poland. Ewa, Stefan and Vee are thrown into the maelstrom of war; they face moral dilemmas, spies, fellow agents, betrayal and the threat of death. An engaging thought provoking read that may appeal more to a female readership because of its romantic theme but then male readers would be missing out.
Published by No Exit Press, paperback, 7th May, £12.99, ISBN: 9780857303950.