A Son of War, by Melvyn Bragg

A return visit to postwar Cumbria moves and delights Carol Birch
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The Independent Culture

Those who enjoyed The Soldier's Return, Melvyn Bragg's subtly powerful novel of postwar Cumbria, will find in his latest a very welcome return to the cobbled alleys and slums of Wigton and the trials and fortunes of the Richardson family. A Son of War picks up where the other left off. Bragg's earlier depiction of the disillusionment of life after war was masterly, and the final scene left us with a wonderfully moving sense of the dignity of compromise for the sake of love.

Now Sam, still nursing mental scars from his experiences in the jungles of Burma, is employed in the local paper factory. Ellen, his wife, cleans. They get by, just, and Joe, seven at the start, has more or less accepted his ousting from the bed he has always shared with his mother.

Life is far from easy. TB is rife in the slums. Sam is unsettled by a letter from Alex, the friend with whom he had so nearly gone to Australia in search of a new life. "The strangeness and the newness out here, Sam!" Alex exclaims in a missive full of the cry of the kookaburra and the scent of frangipani.

Bored to death with the factory, Sam disregards Alex's moans about the climate and Pom-prejudice and homes in on one loaded phrase: "everything is possible." Things are further complicated by the arrival of Colin, the half-brother Ellen did not even know existed, an irritating ne'er-do-well who proceeds to sponge off the family with a grating charm that sets Sam's teeth on edge.

Joe, meanwhile, is growing up fast. Initiated into the mysteries of female anatomy by bold six-year-old Mary, taken on a thieving escapade by urchin hero Speed and coached in the art of smoking by his wily new uncle, his is the perspective that most affects the reader. Some of the most enjoyable passages consist of nothing more than the child's captivating impressions of such small wonders as Blackpool Illuminations, snow in the streets of Wigton or a trip to the seaside.

Bragg's style still throws up the odd over-written sentence, but this is mostly good unpretentious prose, occasionally slightly impressionistic, full of a simple poetry that is deeply evocative. He is particularly good at portraying the terrors of childhood. After their brief sojourn on a new housing estate, the family take over a pub called The Blackamoor, reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a little black boy.

Here begins Joe's struggle against nameless fears. He is 13 when we leave him, assailed by out-of-the-body experiences and a depth of existential loneliness he can share with no one: "He was scared to go into his bedroom at night. He was scared to go past the shop windows. He was scared to bike out of the town alone... There were times when a sentimental song seeped through the floorboards from the floor below and he felt he might cry his heart out."

These gentle books are deceptively simple. They achieve something quite rare ­ a true portrayal of the rhythms of everyday working-class life that is neither dull, bitter nor patronisingly idealised.

Bragg celebrates the low-key heroism that living such a life can entail, not only through the central characters but crucially through the many excellently realised secondary ones: Jackie, Sam's old army pal who's "gone on the tramp"; his stoical wife hauling up the kids as best she can; Speed and his brother Alistair, on a collision course with borstal; simple Bella, dying of TB and pining for one last cuddle with Joe's cat Blackie; Sadie, Ellen's best friend, just a nice person, honestly and admiringly sketched.

This is high-quality nostalgia, without sentiment but with a depth of affection that is genuinely moving. A Son of War is even better than The Soldier's Return.