If you had to choose just one novel to represent every year of the twentieth century, how would you decide?
That’s the very question I’m faced with whenever I buy a book, and it’s not a decision I make lightly. So far, most of the books I’ve read for Book to the Future were selected as the result of quite a lot of research.
It does, however, make my job much easier when someone recommends a book for me to read. Which was the case this week.
Since I started bookblogging, it has always been my intention to read as widely as I possibly can. It’s all part of the adventure. But H. E. Bates’ Fair Stood the Wind for France isn’t the kind of book I’d have ever read if not for this blog. After all, I’m not really a fan of war novels.
As I began to read Fair Stood the Wind for France, I came to two conclusions: firstly, Fair Stood the Wind is not at all what it seems. And secondly, I was very, very glad I’d decided to read this novel…
Fair Stood the Wind for France
by H. E. Bates
Published in 1944
Although Franklin’s left arm is badly injured in the crash, it’s his duty as pilot to lead his men to safety. Franklin and his crew of four set off across the French countryside, knowing that they must find somewhere to hide before the Germans track them down. They need food; shelter. But when the penalty for aiding the English is death by firing squad, who can they trust?
Franklin encounters a farmer and his family who are willing to not only let Franklin and his crew stay in their riverside mill, but also help them to obtain the identity papers they need to escape from France. The crew make their break for freedom, but Franklin is forced to remain behind, his injured arm growing worse with every passing day. Françoise, the dark-eyed daughter of the house nurses Franklin through his sickness.
As Franklin slowly recovers in the waning French summer, he finds himself falling slowly, shyly in love with Françoise.
Franklin knows he must leave the mill as soon as his health is recovered – his very presence puts Françoise and her whole family at risk. However, Franklin can no longer think of his future without the woman he loves.
I was amazed to discover Fair Stood the Wind for France, H. E. Bates’ classic tale of the Second World War isn’t really a war novel at all. At heart, it’s a tale of young love blossoming in the least likely of places, at the most inconvenient time.
Fair Stood the Wind might be, in my eyes, a romance, but it also has moments so tense you’ll find yourself sorely tempted to skip paragraphs merely to find out what happens next; moments so unexpectedly tragic you’ll have to remind yourself to continue breathing in and out as you read. This novel launches a surprise attack on your emotions. It packs a mightier wallop than you might think.
It’s impossible not to mention Bates’ talent for crafting utterly lovely prose. In my (albeit limited) experience, war novels are often expressed in stripped-back, utilitarian sentences, like a slideshow of atrocities. There’s no time for reflection, no detail – just action, action, action. Fair Stood the Wind is different. From the first dreamy sentence, Bates’ writing is astonishingly lyrical. Here’s just one of many examples:
“There were six or seven stalls, and under the grey-green awnings were laid out the perishable produce of the late summer that could not be transported : small green-pink peaches, sweet green grapes, soft early pears, a few apples. The girl stopped at one stall and picked up a peach and pressed it with her thumb and fingers. She put it down again and he saw the mark of her thumb like a bruise on the pink skin of the fruit. He stood for a moment or two watching it, fascinated, as if expecting to see it disappear like the dent made by a child in a rubber ball, and then he turned and the girl was no longer there” (p. 66)
It’s the way Bates fills his novel with these little details; the momentary imprint of a young woman’s finger on a peach, that makes reading Fair Stood the Wind, to my intense surprise, such an enjoyable experience.
I was particularly impressed by the way Bates writes about pain without resorting to clichés. As Franklin’s pain increases in its intensity, Bates’ descriptions grow increasingly abstract:
“He felt that his arm lay open, slit and raw, to a wind of acid blowing fiercely down on the naked veins, cauterising and swelling them up. (…) The flesh of his arm was broken apart, and then, in a few moments of confusion when pain and faintness and the light on his eyeballs beat him back into waves of colder and colder darkness, came together again. It was held together with a new pain, metallic and tight and unrelenting.” (pages 60 and 61)
Another completely unexpected delight was Bates’ oddly fascinating symbolism. Bates uses Franklin’s service revolver, a weapon he has used only once in his life, to stand for all violence. Though Franklin believes the gun will make him safe – instead, it brings something entirely different.
A little of the momentum of Fair Stood the Wind is lost towards the end of the novel. I felt this section was a little rushed. It seemed to lack the lucid clarity of the rest of the novel. But that tension returns towards the conclusion, which keeps you on the edge until the very last page.
Fair Stood the Wind for France is a sly little volume. It’s a romance, masquerading as a war novel. It’s about growing up, the awkward grace of young love, and the ache of loss.
World War Two introduced the world to such previously unimaginable horror. Fair Stood the Wind for France acts as a reminder that, although human beings can be destructive, cruel monsters, we can also be brave, trusting and tender. All is not lost.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Yes. Fair Stood the Wind is a touching, thrilling tale, told with surprising elegance. As much as I enjoyed the novel itself, I enjoyed the way Bates crafted it. It’s truly eyebrow-raising. There’s so much more I could say, but I wouldn’t want to spoil this book for you. It simply has to be read.
In a word: