I was excited to receive an advance copy of this WW2 novel, due out on 7 May, as it ticked two boxes that interest me particularly about the period. The Air Transport Auxiliary, with its female pilots flying alongside male counterparts, and the Nazi occupation of Poland, neither of which seem to have had a great deal of coverage in historical fiction recently. This makes the book timely as well as fascinating, as both areas are gathering interest. In terms of the latter, Roger Moorhouse’ excellent First To Fight released last year provided a sorely needed new nonfiction text about the role of Poland at the beginning of the war, and its treatment at the hands of both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR, and it’s good to see historical fiction moving into this space too. The novel takes place under the shadow of the Katyn massacre, which permeates the narrative and forms the driving force behind the narrative, even when the characters don’t realise it.
For all the interest provided by the settings, it’s the characters who immediately leap off the page. The central characters – two women, one man – are complex, even contradictory, and engaging if sometimes frustrating (they are human, after all). Vee is an ATA pilot who more than the others seems to be struggling to fit into her place in a rapidly changing world. Ewa works at her father’s guesthouse in occupied Poznań while helping the resistance – her position complicated by both the family’s ethnic German status and the attraction she begins to feel towards some young German officers. Spitfire pilot Stefan connects the two women through a romantic connection with them both and, complicating matters rather, his murky and mysterious war work. In fact, murky is a word that well suits the activity in When We Fall – simple matters such as which side someone is on can quickly become impenetrably opaque.
When We Fall explores a world where straight-laced pre-war sensibilities were rapidly evolving into a situation where young people had – and were able – to take love, sex, comfort, human contact where they find it. (This stood out particularly given my previous read, A Remembrance Of Ghosts by Frank Barnard, set in a postwar world where the genie was temporarily, and only partly successfully, put back into the bottle). This stands for the action in both Britain and Poland. Vee, who starts out as something of an innocent, learns this lesson after a chance encounter with Stefan, who she begins to develop an obsession with. Ewa, on the other hand, knew Stefan before the war, but finds herself drawn, in Stefan’s absence, to SS officer Heinrich Beck. Stefan is such a mystery for much of the novel that it’s hard to know what he wants – he’s unquestionably focussed on picking up with Ewa where they left off, and yet is seemingly fixated on Vee, for reasons that do not become fully clear for some time. All three in their way are united by flying – Ewa, whose obsession with flying did not quite lead her into the air as it did with Vee, but to Stefan, then a pilot with the Polish Air Force and, via capture and escape, to the RAF.
The importance of Katyn in the story, and that of women pilots, led me to wonder if a particular historical person might make an appearance – without giving too much away, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, the entire Polish part of When We Fall (which is the lion’s share) was utterly absorbing in the authenticity of its details. I know little of Germany’s efforts to further ‘Germanise’ the occupied parts of Poland, which it attempted to incorporate into the ‘Greater German Reich’ during the period the novel is set. The fact that parts of the country had been in Germany until the Versailles treaty reshaped Europe, and many within the population saw themselves as German, makes for a fearsomely complicated situation. It also makes for fascinating and enlightening reading that left me, as all the best historical fiction does, keen to find out more about the history behind the story.
On top of all this When We Fall is a page-turning adventure and mystery, which will keep the reader guessing until the last page. I cannot recommend it highly enough.