My rating: 9/10
I liked this novel a lot. It’s hard to believe it was written at the roughly the same time as the melodramatic Crooked Adam (1942), as it is a much more sober and thoughtful sort of thing, reflective no doubt of the author’s own musings in the years leading up to the start of World War II. It is wonderfully atmospheric from start to finish, and the characters pleased me greatly, from the gorgeous blonde Aryan “super-man” and ex-Hitler Youth Franz to fluffy-but-ultimately-wise Sophie and fragile-seeming but tough-as-nails Wynne.
This book is fairly common, and I don’t want to spoil it for those of you still to read it, so I’ll keep this review brief and avoid any spoilers.
It is the spring of 1938, and half-German, half-English Franz has suddenly invited himself to stay with his English semi-cousins, the Braithwaites. No one is quite sure what to make of Franz’s out-of-the-blue advances, and when he arrives their initial reaction is uneasy. Franz is a tall young golden-haired “Greek god” figure of a man, with stiffly formal manners and no apparent sense of humour. After the initial whispered consultations: “I wonder if he’s a Nazi? Don’t talk about politics!” everyone unbends a bit, and as the days pass Franz is seen to make a real effort to find common ground with his English hosts.
Especially lovely Wynne, the Braithwaite daughter, who has been tenaciously trying to get through Franz’s Teutonic reserve while educating him in the niceties of the English sense of humour, common slang, and recognition of and appropriate responses to friendly teasing.
But Dane Worthington, Wynne’s uncle, who has been her legal guardian since her father’s untimely death, cocks a cynical eyebrow in Franz’s direction. Why is he really so keen to immerse himself in English domestic life? For Dane knows, through certain connections of his own, that Franz’s father is a highly-placed official in the Nazi party, and one of Hitler’s personal advisers.
There are many secrets afoot, this golden last summer of peace before the start of the war…
A rather nicely plotted story – though we do get some major clues throughout as to what is really going on – and well up there in D.E. Stevenson’s oeuvre. The themes are serious and treated with respect without being dreary; in places this one reads rather like an O. Douglas novel, unsensational and matter-of-fact, and deeply appealing in a quietly memorable way. Occasionally things slip into melodrama, but all in all the author does a grand job here; it is one of my new favourites of the many DES stories I’ve now read.
I particularly enjoyed the author’s discussion of patriotism, and thought it well-balanced and insightful, though by the time of the writing of Crooked Adam in 1942 the mood had obviously changed to something much more reactive and extreme, on both sides of the ongoing conflict.
The English Air was finished in February, 1940, and, as well as being a diverting light novel, is an intriguing eyewitness snapshot of a specific time and place in the last year of peace and the first year of war.