The Burning Blue - James Holland
Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle
Seldom have I come across a book that has moved me quite like James Holland’s beautifully written and evocative wartime novel, The Burning Blue.
Spanning the turbulent years between 1938 and 1942 (though not strictly in sequence), it’s the story of a young RAF fighter pilot’s courage and determination to survive not only the Battle of Britain, but also the war in north Africa.
But for Joss Lambert it’s not only about staying alive. A secret from the past comes back to haunt him in the worst possible way, while his long-standing friendship with Guy Liddell is severely tested by Guy’s inability to accept his own role in the war – a farmer in a reserved occupation.
The Burning Blue is also a love story as Joss embarks on a passionate affair with Stella, Guy’s twin sister; a situation that further threatens an already faltering friendship.
Although The Burning Blue is a work of fiction, Holland’s meticulous research and wonderfully descriptive prose might easily convince you otherwise. For example, most of Joss’ experiences are based on those of David Crook whose own book Spitfire Pilot was written in 1942.
As for the aerial combat sequences, they are nothing short of breathtaking and if it wasn’t for the simple fact that what Holland describes in such remarkable detail actually took place in the summer and autumn of 1940, they could well be attributed to a wonderfully vivid imagination.
As they stand, they’re a fitting testament to the courage of young men like Joss (who was just 20 years old during the Battle of Britain), many of whom died for their country.
But make no mistake, Holland’s imagery is superb. For example, 13 Spitfires against ‘a mass of enemy aircraft’ appeared to Joss ‘like minnows attacking sharks’. It can’t get any better than that.
Holland also painstakingly recreates life as it was in the late 1930s – a time of comparative innocence best illustrated perhaps, by the circumstances surrounding Joss’ loss of virginity – an episode that is strangely touching yet at the same time unashamedly amusing.
It was also a time when, rightly or wrongly, the word cancer was never mentioned.
Two final points, both equally worthy of mention – with an awareness that belies his years, Holland adeptly contrasts the horrors of war with the relative calm of everyday life, yet dares to empathize with enemy losses.
But how right he is – a son is a son no matter the nationality and grief (also sensitively illustrated) knows no frontiers.
The Burning Blue will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page. And ending as it does in 1942, it will most definitely leave you wanting more.
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