The moment you open a new book by one of your favourite authors is always one of a combination of hope and trepidation. Whether you like it or not, you carry expectation with you. The ghosts of past characters and their adventures look on over your shoulder, as you hear that wonderful crack as the spine of a hardcover book gives way to reveal it’s secrets for the first time. I have enjoyed Robert Radcliffe’s previous five novels, to the point I even read one of them as an eBook (see this post for why that is a thing for me. Enjoyed the book, not the format). Radcliffe’s new tale is his most ambitious yet. Airborne is the first of trilogy of novels telling the tale of a boy caught between countries, in search of a father and finds two; John Frost, godfather of the Parachute Regiment and Erwin Rommel, The Desert Fox.
In Airborne we meet the Medical Officer of 11th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, Captain Daniel Garland. Garlands starts the novel telling us how he jumped into Oosterbeek in an attempt to reach Frost’s 2nd Battalion at Arnhem Bridge. Operation Market Garden is one of those events that has captured the British public’s imagination, in only the way “glorious” British failure seems too. Radcliffe uses Garland, a freshly volunteered Doctor, as our eyes in the carnage of what the Germans named “The Cauldron”. Garland witnesses the battle not through seeing the fighting, but in it’s results, the broken men he fights desperately to save. One evening, during a lull in the fighting, while looking at a line of men waiting to be buried, one of them raises his hand, thus Garland meets Andreas Theodor Josef Victor Ladurner-Trickey. Radcliffe has used a fractured timeline in some of his previous novels to great effect and usually a third party as entry point to the story. He returns to this device in Airborne and uses it to jump from a first person account in the aftermath of Arnhem to a third, the story of how Theo Trickey came to be found in that blood soaked garden in Oosterbeek. Theo is from a region of Northern Italy called South Tyrol. Theo’s parents are a British officer in the Alps training for the first Winter Games and his mother, Carla, a member of a family that reflects the tensions of South Tyrol, a region that had been part of many nations, yet never it’s own. Theo grows up in the midst of the tensions within his own extended family that sees his country being pulled towards Germany, Austria and finally, towards Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Theo’s is seen as none of these, being half-British and yet is drawn by all of them. He meets Rommel at an alpine games where he makes an impression on the young Major who had commanded Theo’s grandfather in the first war. But as South Tryol is forcibly joined to Italy, Theo and Clara escape to Britain where they begin to discover that Theo’s father may not have been all he made himself out to be.
One of the things about Historical Fiction is that the author can get a tad carried away with is throwing his or her characters into just about every major event that happened in the time period they are exploring. In the case of Airborne, and it successors, the fledgling Paras got up to a helluva a lot. While getting Theo back to Italy and escaping the aftermath of Operation Colossus (the blowing up of the aqueduct over the Targino River in Southern Italy) allows for an exploration of fascist Italy (plot hole of the buried rucksack aside) and the various family members left behind, it feels more of a sightseeing trip than anything more at this point. You do find yourself rather more enjoying the returns to the captured Garland as he struggles to adjust to life in captivity and care for Theo. Theo is our avatar in the story and his journey to eventually meet Garland is very much ours as well. While at times he does seem swept along with events, Theo’s need to find a home, something he thought was South Tyrol, is compelling enough to keep us going. It helps as well that the tale, as a whole, is written brilliantly. The cast leap from the page and the evoking of period such that the tale is projected in your mind’s eye with stunning vividity. While the novel ends before it begins, the background and world for this trilogy has been painted deftly. Airborne is a superb jumping off point and the seeds sown for more than enough to keep us looking forward to Freefall next year.
Airborne by Robert Radcliffe is published by Head of Zeus and will be released on 12th January 2016.