Review: The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
This is a hefty book on the first year of Churchill's year as Prime Minister and the concurrent first year of the Blitz - and it is a phenomenal book. I've always been a huge fan of Erik Larson, the author of The Splendid and the Vile, and his ability to tell such a gripping story in the context of his meticulous research and detailed sourcing. I think this is also accompanied by a real flair for picking his stories and the narratives he wishes to explore; of his eight published works, at least three of them are World War II stories - which you can kind of understand. World War II, a horrific stain on the history of Europe, also lends itself to some damn good storytelling. Some of my favorite books of recent years have been World War II stories (incidentally, all of the great WW2 stories that jump to mind are written by men - is this a significant gap in my own reading, or a gap in the literature more generally? Discuss.).
This book is yet another example of Larson's unique flair - his magnificent work of nonfiction, centered around on the first year of the Blitz and Churchill's first year as Prime Minister, also reads like a sublime piece of domestic thriller. The sourcing and the research is visible on every page, and his reliance on primary sources - the published and private diaries of some of the key players of the era, as well as published correspondence - means that all of the characters at the center of the story, both Churchill and his family and staff and ministers, feel very vivid, and like they're being fully portrayed without any of the glossing you sometimes get of the people who were active at this time of European history (maybe reasonably). I think Larson is perhaps a bit guilty of hero-worshipping Winston Churchill, but seeing that just about everyone was doing this at the time and he is relying on contextual and timely historical sources, that can be forgiven.
I think the fact that Larson narrows the focus of his book to just one year, May 1940-May 1941 (with an epilogue that focuses on the immediate consequences of the attack on Pearl Harbor) makes it an even more compelling read than if he had broadened the scope. An awful lot happened in Churchill's circle during the war, and the gripping nature of the domestic and interpersonal dramas would not have spread easily to a six-year conflict. And the book is certainly gripping - I was on the edge of my seat both during the passages that described the raids against London and Canterbury, and to find out what the outcome of Mary Churchill's courtship by Eric Bessborough would be. I cannot adequately explain just how gripping and thrilling this book was - it's 585 pages long, and I tore through it in three sittings because I had to physically tear myself away from it so I could do my adulting jobs (like my actual job, and cleaning the house, and laundry. I hate being a grown-up).
The writing is also spectacularly well-done: crisp, clear, precise, no-nonsense. Erik Larson never gets bogged down in an attempt to make his story of his writing complex or flowery or metaphorical, he just sets out the facts of his story and lets the sheer nature of his narrative do the work on its own. He is a master of "showing not telling", something that, frankly, quite a few nonfiction writers could learn to do better. What is also excellent is Larson's ability to tell a story that is, frankly, very well-known and add dimensions to it that feel new and fresh - I learned things from this book that I'd never thought of before, or ever considered. For example, it was a bit of a shock to discover that the first 18 months of the war in England were viewed with some real pessimism - I've always learned about World War II through the lens of an Allied victory, and so every thing I've learned about it has always had the weight of an Allied victory being inevitable. I also never knew how high the number of Britons who died during the Blitz was - that was a real emotional one-two punch for me.
But Larson does an excellent job of conveying the real weight of worry that Britain would be defeated, and the real sense of desperation at Roosevelt and America's isolationism and procrastination, without ever giving way to hysteria or depression. It does an excellent job of conveying the exorbitantly high stakes of the book, and transmitting how real the sense of hope and courage was of the people who make up the center of this book, and the historical time Larson is writing about.
Anyway, I highly recommend this book and thought it was excellent. In the current climate, it was also incredibly refreshing to read a book about A) a head of government who actually knew what he was talking about and used his power and his platform to bring his country together and share his courage and his fearlessness, and implemented real policies to help as many people as he could; B) people banding together in light of the common good instead of following their own stupid, selfish, silly, misguided personal interests. It might be weird to think of a book about one of the most horrible things to ever happen in the history of humanity as escapism, but considering how bad things feel right now - it really was. It also helps that it was escapism of spectacular literary value, and that I learned something from.
Everyone go read this book and then let's talk about it while we continue drinking alone.
Stay home, stay safe, wash your hands - and everyone look after yourselves as much as you can, whatever that means for you.