Reviewed by Emma Crowley
September 1940, London
As the German Luftwaffe begin a terrifying bombing campaign that will come to be known as the Blitz, thousands are evacuated to safety. But Lizzie Mackenzie finds herself heading towards London.
She knows she must help in the war effort. But she has another reason for leaving the security of her Scottish village: the illegitimate child she gave up for adoption nearly five years before is somewhere in the city. And – as the bombs rain down – she will stop at nothing to find her and make sure her little girl is safe.
Then she finds herself trapped in a dark theatre during a bombing raid, where she meets Pilot Officer Jack Henson. Against all her instincts, she falls in love. But what chance is there for that love to flourish? Because if he discovers the secret shame of her past, he may never forgive her. And with Jack facing the enemy every day in the sky, and Lizzie’s job guiding pilots into battle – life and love has never felt so fragile.
Until a chance encounter with a little orphaned girl changes everything, forcing Lizzie to ask herself what truly matters. Because, in the darkest days of war, every life counts. And – when tragedy strikes – saving one child’s life might just give Lizzie a reason to survive…
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of Under a Sky on Fire to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Under a Sky on Fire the new book from Suzanne Kelman was an excellent read from start to finish and one in which my eyes were opened to aspects of the war that I had never previously read in much detail. Having recently read a lot of books set in Italy during World War Two, it was refreshing to change setting back to England. As much as I love historical fiction it can become slightly monotonous reading of the same setting and time period but this book was like a breath of fresh air. It follows three young women, Lizzie, Julia and Diana, all from very different backgrounds who forge a friendship because of a missed bus home after a night at the cinema. Theirs was a friendship forged in fire quite literally as when we meet them the Blitz was just beginning over London.
There must have been such extensive research undertaken by the author before she began writing this book as everything is so detailed, but in a good way as it never felt like I was reading a history book, and the imagery created is so vivid and realistic that I felt like I was there amongst the girls as they battled through each day in the face of so much adversity whilst trying to keep themselves safe and keep things as normal as they possibly could. The emotions experienced by the women ooze off the page and the reader themselves becomes deeply invested in their lives, both personal and professional. The bond the trio create is not forced or over the top, it felt genuine and supportive. That they would be there for each other no matter what, through thick and thin and through the good times and bad. War made everything change more or less overnight and this also could be said for personal relationships as one never knew would long term love or loss be around the corner. The relationships the women establish, particularly Lizzie and Diana, are intense and fast moving but that was the case at the time so I never looked on them as just being way too quick and that it couldn’t have happened in real life because it did at the time. Every chapter and scenario that developed was so expertly crafted and written and the trio’s sheer determination and resilience shone through at every available opportunity.
In 1940 Lizzie Mackenzie leaves the Highlands where she has been living on a farm with her Aunt and Uncle. Her heart belongs there and they have been good to her especially as she had to leave the island of Barra, where her family resides, very much under a black cloud. She is now joining the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and hopes this new stage in life will help her in the healing process that meant she has never spoken to her immediate family since she left the island. I thought it was brilliant that we knew the reason for Lizzie being made to leave as it really helped me to understand her a lot more. Why she made the decisions that she did? What was it that was motivating her to get to London in particular? Yes she wants to do her bit for the war effort now that women are being allowed to step up and take on greater roles but there is something else burning deep inside her that motivates her and keeps her pushing forward. She meets Diana on the train as she travels to her training camp and they instantly feel a rapport with one another and this never wavers throughout the entire book.
Lizzie is still tormented by a significant event in her past and she can never let go of what she did. She carries this burden around with her and in London she hopes to find some resolution. When her training is complete she is given an important role as a plotter. I had never heard of this before and the insight into Churchill’s underground war bunker in Whitehall where so much crucial work was carried out and decisions made was fascinating. I felt like a door was being opened into an aspect of the war that is often kept very much secret. Lizzie finds the work challenging and finds it very hard that if she sees or hears something how will she cope if she knows it will affect someone she knows. Lizzie keeps her little quest/secret to herself even when she meets squadron leader Jack Henson she doesn’t really open up and I could understand why she did this. The chemistry between the pair is evident and I enjoyed how the lighter and more romantic side of their relationship offered some relief from the constant terror of the bombs raining down each night.
One night when Lizzie emerges from a shelter after a raid she encounters a young girl wandering on the road after her street has been destroyed. She is dazed and confused and will not speak but Lizzie feels drawn to her and realises she must help her. Through one thing and another she ends up staying with the women at Julia’s house. Reading the blurb you would believe this encounter to be a huge part of the book and for a short while it was but then I thought it took a back seat and not much happened with it. But I needn’t have worried as Suzanne Kelman had everything plotted out so well and there were plenty of twists and turns awaiting me as I kept rapidly turning the pages of this brilliant read.
Diana leaves her home city of Birmingham like Lizzie wanting to do her bit for the war. But her father is not that happy that she is signing up for war work and she feels very guilty. He still suffers from his experiences in the first war but Diana feels pulled to do something on a grander scale for her country. She knows people have to be stronger and make Britain proud. Her friendship with Lizzie and Julia sustains her especially as her work on the barrage balloons is dangerous, tough and she lives in fear of what will happen. But Diana grows over the course of the book and as she battles each night on the ground as the bombs rain down she starts to feel a greater appreciation for what her father went through and she begins to understand why he is the way he is. She girds herself with steel and is determined to keep going and to keep fighting for herself and her family. But Diana knows that each of the trio can reach out to each other to seek comfort and normality and she can always draw on the feeling of home in the midst of a world gone mad. I thought it was great that Diana began a relationship with Len as it offered her some pleasant moments and relief when she was off duty. Yet was this relationship another source of worry that she would also feel the need to constantly shoulder?
Julia was the mother hen of the group in that she came from a slightly different situation and background to either Diana or Lizzie. She seemed more grown up and of course she would be given she was married and had two young children. Her concerns regarding the war were different to that of her friends because she was worried for her husband’s safety as he was away fighting and she also wrestled with her conscience as to whether she should send her two children away to an Aunt in the Cotswolds. Not to mention Julia had to put up with a mother-in-law who lived next door and wasn’t all that nice to her. Julia, as similar to the other two women, had such an interesting job during the war and at the risk of repeating myself yet again it’s one I had never even imagined people doing but now I realise the necessity of it. Julia was promoted to a typing pool who worked for Churchill, they typed his speeches and important documents. It was like an entire other world as the battles raged across many countries and continents and this little system was hidden deep in Whitehall. I loved Julia as a character and it seemed as if there wasn’t overly much going on with her apart from the worries I have mentioned above. But again Suzanne Kelman has been really clever and if I had been even more alert I would have copped on to some of the clues dropped within the story. Suffice to say I didn’t but I wasn’t annoyed as I thoroughly enjoyed all the reveals and twists and turns that came aplenty towards the end.
I really really enjoyed Under a Sky on Fire. Suzanne Kelman is a really talented author and I hope to read many more books from her in the future. The only minor little gripe that I would have is that some events were left too late to come to the fore and therefore the ending felt slightly rushed. A few more pages of explanation and expansion before the epilogue would have been good. But aside from that I think the story of Lizzie, Diana and Julia will capture many people’s hearts. They were women of endurance, a three strand cord and they showed by being strong that you could get through the worst that life has to offer. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book as I spent several hours so deeply engrossed in the world inhabited by Lizzie and co.