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Wonderful writing but a frustrating read
on 26 June 2014
This novel starts with an enigma. At the end of World War Two, a young officer called Kenneth Brill is arrested on espionage charges. A landscape artist, he has been painting pictures of a new aerodrome and is suspected of spying for the Germans. As his interrogation continues, the narrative flashes back to episodes from his past; as an art student at the Slade, as a failed schoolmaster, and as a child living on the heath west of London that later lent its name to London's premier international airport. Gradually we learn more about his life - always as an outsider on the fringes of society - and about his alliances, his motivations and his failings.
This ought to work well, and the novel is exquisitely written - there are some glorious descriptive passages, such as the elegy for the lost rural world of the Heath destined to be flattened by runways, terminal and international air traffic. Gerard Woodward is also a poet, which goes some way towards explaining the quality of his prose; sadly, he is not quite so skilled a storyteller and parts of the plot lost me altogether. The narrative is somewhat unfocussed and I found myself frequently losing interest, putting the novel aside to read something else - consequently it took me months to finish it. The central metaphor deals with disappearance and disguise - Brill is a camouflage officer - and perhaps as a result, the story has a tendency to fade and becomes elusive itself. Ultimately, a frustrating read.