First Time Solo by Iain Maloney

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Reviewed by Andrew Blackman

Pick up a book set in World War Two, and you have certain expectations. These expectations are largely frustrated by First Time Solo, and that’s a good thing.

There are, after all, many different experiences of war. Some people fight on the beaches, some skulk in cellars, some go on daring missions, some are sent to concentration camps.

The characters in First Time Solo talk about war, hear about war, yearn for war, but the closest they get to it is staying at an RAF training camp in the English seaside resort of Babbacombe, staring out to sea and picturing the conflict going on across the water in Europe.

What this means is that, aside from the occasional bombing raid, the drama in the book doesn’t come from the war. It comes from the simmering conflict between the characters as they go through the long process of training to be RAF pilots.

The narrator, Jack Devine, begins as a naïve farm boy from the far north of Scotland, laughed at by his more worldly colleagues and grateful for the tentative friendship of a few of them: Joe, a fiery Glaswegian communist with a knack for getting in fights, the black market dealer Terry, and the quieter, more cerebral Doug.

As the book develops, though, the power dynamic shifts. Jack becomes a man, partly through the confidence that comes from completing his training and being allowed to fly solo, but mainly through the choices he is forced to make. He starts off as someone who always follows the rules and does the right thing, but then starts to come across situations where the “right thing” is not so clear.

What do you do when you suspect your friend of doing something terrible, for example? Is it right to be loyal, or to turn him in? Can you atone for one wrong by committing another?

“Straighten up and fly right,” Joe tells him, quoting from a jazz song they’ve been playing. But as the simmering violence between the RAF cadets becomes more serious, and one of them dies in a suspicious plane crash, the right course becomes increasingly unclear.

His friend Willie tells him to keep his head down and say nothing:

There’s a war on. People dying every day. I honestly cannae find it in me tae give much of a fuck … It’s no your job tae bring justice tae this world, Jack. It’s your job tae stand by your mates, dae your best and, if need be, die for your country.

It’s in plotting his course through this moral maze, in choosing between duty and truth, loyalty and morality, that Jack grows up.

So despite the setting, I wouldn’t call First Time Solo a war novel; I’d call it a coming-of-age novel. The war is responsible only for bringing these disparate characters together and keeping them trapped at close quarters for long periods of time. Occasionally it breaks out from the background—there’s a bombing raid in Babbacombe, for example, and another later on in Manchester—but mostly the danger comes not from the Germans, but from each other.

The pacing of the book is slow: the tensions don’t even begin to simmer until the second half of the book, and even then, the heat could have been turned up another notch or two to bring them to the boil more quickly. For long stretches, all we have are four friends going through the rigours, humiliations, boredom and petty escapades of military training.

The characters are well drawn, and we get a good sense of the friendships and the strains within the group. The training itself is also meticulously researched and highly realistic—the author gleaned many of the details from his grandfather, and supplemented it with other reading.

But the danger of doing lots of research is that you end up putting it all in the book. Ultimately, the day-to-day minutiae of exams, parades, guard duty and ‘capture the flag’ contests are not very interesting. Even the characters are bored by it all: Joe complains, “Christ, why can we no just get on with it? … At this rate the war’ll be over and we’ll still be sitting here, smoking.”

Jazz provides an escape, both for the characters and the reader. Jack is a keen trumpeter, Joe plays the drums, and Terry is a singer and pianist. Together they form a jazz trio, and in the music they find a way to create something that takes them away from the fear and the routine. Some of the descriptions are beautiful:

Terry stroked the piano, pulling a sweet soft melody from it. It made me think of green, spring, wind in the trees, a river. After a few bars I knew exactly where I would fit in. The piece was in danger of slipping into melancholy and needed a burst of sunshine. Should I wait? Hesitantly, I blew a G, softly growing, like a dawn flooding the melody. Joe saw what I was doing, his head nodding … we were all in it, living the same scene, the same image in our minds. We were together then, the three of us, a trio in that moment. We made something that afternoon.

Iain Maloney has made something too, something worthwhile. If you can keep patience through the slightly plodding descriptions of military training, you’ll be rewarded with a thoughtful denouement that asks important questions about friendship, duty, and how hard it can sometimes be to do the right thing.

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Andrew Blackman lives in Crete and is the author of two novels, A Virtual Love and On the Holloway Road. He blogs here.

Iain Maloney, First Time Solo (Freight Books: Glasgow, 2014). 978-1908754615, 215pp., paperback.

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