This is a book about an American air force bomber base in Suffolk, and the neighbouring village of Bedenham during one summer of World War Two. John Hooper, a Lieutenant commanding a B17 heavy bomber, loses all his crew on a mission, but escapes with his own life. He is devastated, and devotes himself to ensuring that his next crew gets through their allocated total of 25 missions alive - after which they are entitled to go home.It is a time when the US 8th Air Force is taking exceptionally heavy losses and the odds are against any crew surviving that number of missions. The lives of Hooper and his crew are interwoven with the quieter lives of the villagers of nearby Bedenham: Heather Garrett, the schoolteacher, married to a young subaltern in the Royal Norfolk regiment who has gone missing in action at the fall of Singapore; Ray Howden the blacksmith who endured the first world war (only twenty years before) in the trenches and wants his family to have nothing to do with the Americans who have brought war to his doorstep; and Billy Street the cockney evacuee who is having the time of his life in and out of the American base.
The novel is convincing in its detail about English life and the war in the air over Germany. It gathers momentum and conviction throughout its 430 pages. The last mission of Hooper and his crew - like the first day on the Somme in Sebastian Faulks's'Birdsong' - is almost unbearable in its suspense and in the pressure that has built up behind it. The courage and devotion of the fliers, which you become increasingly aware of as the novel progresses makes the wasting of lives all the harder to bear.
This is a war novel with little or no macho behaviour, but much realism. It is a peace novel, too, because the world of the Suffolk village counterpoints the world of the 520th Bombardment Group. Bedenham is a constant reminder of the normal rhythms and relationships of society, of which the war is a huge, vivid, engrossing disruption.
There are some good scenes in London - American officers thronging the smart hotels, English tarts hustling in Piccadilly, Southwark in an air raid. There are some good scenes, too, in grand houses and small cottages around Suffolk as the English, sidelined, with their young men away in Africa and Asia, try to make sense of the war and the irruption of the Yanks into their lives. But the real srength of the novel is in the depiction of the moulding of Hooper's disparate crew of 10 fliers into a band of brothers - to borrow the title of a TV series that was itself borrowed from Henry V; and in the delicate, responsible adult relationship that grows up between John Hooper and Heather Garrett.
The book builds steadily to a searing climax, of which the less said in a review the better. And then there is a final chapter bringing the story into the 1980s, which is perhaps too pat.
The flying detail - the beauty of flying as well as the stress and the tension - is marvellously done. As a war novel this book is refreshingly free of either improbable heroics or gratuitous gore. It tells it, you feel, the way it probably was. It's not War and Peace. But it can go on the same bookshelf.