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ASHES TO ASHES
by Barbara Nadel
Headline, July 2008
288 pages
19.99 GBP
ISBN: 0755336208


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

On the night of 29 December, 1940, the City of London and its centrepiece, St Paul's Cathedral, were the focus of a sustained and relentless German air attack designed to destroy both the commercial and spiritual heart of London and with it, British morale. Ranged against the raiders was St Paul's Watch, a band of some 250 architects, professionals, and cathedral staff, armed with stirrup pumps and an iron conviction that the cathedral must be saved.

ASHES TO ASHES is set in St Paul's on that fateful night. Gathered in the crypt is a mixed group of ordinary Londoners, sheltering from the firestorm outside. Among them is Francis Hancock, a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War (the 'First Lot', as he thinks of it). Hancock, the protagonist of two previous books set during the Blitz, is an undertaker, but he is also overwhelmed by hallucinatory flashbacks of the first war to such a degree that he is frequently unable to distinguish between what is real and what is not. Thus he makes a highly unreliable guide to the events of this nightmarish evening.

Hardly has he reached what he believes will be the safety of the cathedral shelter, when he is enlisted to find a foul-mouthed little girl who has appeared and just as abruptly disappeared from the crypt. His search sends him on a terrifying exploration of the whole of St Paul's from crypt to Whispering Gallery and beyond, as a mysterious band of Cathedral Watchmen seek to prevent him from finding the girl, upon whom they have deadly designs.

This is a difficult book to review. It is chock full of interesting ideas high certainly the main character, still suffering from the aftermath of the First World War while the Second rages around him, is an inspired invention. But the dialogue is unconvincingly stagey - the characters tend to face each other and declaim and never, despite the bombs and the fires and the general tension, fail to refer to one another as 'Mr'. Surely in the heat of the moment, they could have got onto a last-name basis, if not a first.

The action, such as it is, largely consists of Francis Hancock crawling over most of the possible surfaces that will bear his weight. Actually clinging by one's toes and fingernails to the underside of the great dome of St Paul's would be heart-stoppingly terrifying. Reading about it, maybe not so much. And then, of course, there is the central plot, which concerns renegade Masons and is a familiar one.

Still, Nadel does raise a number of interesting questions, one of which very high on the public agenda to this day - how far may one go in the defence of one's country? She reminds us of the casual racism that was the currency of the day, especially disturbing in the light of the convictions of those who were trying to bring Britain to its knees. And Hancock himself, the swarthy outsider, stuttering, given to hallucinations, but still determined to complete the task he is handed, is surely someone worth meeting.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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