As the twentieth century dawns, Guv Sutro becomes a pioneer aviator, defying his father’s wishes, piloting a primitive glider over the fields of Sussex.
Soon Guv is a fighter ace on the Western Front, then a record-breaker between the wars. With the outbreak of World War Two his son Tim, a reluctant pilot in the RAF, strives to shed the burden of his father’s reputation, while Will Kemp, Tim’s boyhood friend, seeks to emulate Guv, his hero, by fighting in the Battle of Britain.
The fate of these men is bound together in this portrayal of the monumental ambition and terrible tragedy of a time for heroes.
A Time for Heroes is set in a fascinating era of history: the first half of the twentieth century. Barnard takes an interesting angle to approach WWI, the Interbellum, and WWII, looking through the prism of the birth of modern aviation. Despite all of this, however, this book is far more a character study than a primer on history. It centres on Guv Sutro and his boyhood friend Stan Kemp and their families. It took me a while to get into this rather hefty tome (when did a 500-page novel become a hefty tome for me?), but once the story developed some momentum, it was hard to put it away. A Time for Heroes turned into a gripping book about what ambition and a drive to leave a mark on the world can drive a man to.
Ostensibly the book is the story of two father-son pairings, but in reality there is only one driving force in this novel: Guv Sutro. Stan, Will, and Tim all play important parts, but Guv is at the heart of the narrative. He is an unsympathetic character, yet completely compelling. In fact, the more sympathetic characters rather got on my nerves at times, especially Stan. Stan just felt so passive. He wasn’t a washout, as Guv might have put it, or a coward, but he was so accepting of everything that happened to him. I just wanted him to man up and grow a pair—and yes, I know this is ironic to those who may be familiar with the book. Similarly, I cheered when Lydia finally decided enough was enough, as the way Guv treated her was horrible and her wilful blindness to his wicked ways exasperated me. Guv, in comparison, is rather straightforward. A bully used to getting his way, always out to get the best deal for himself, full of a braggadocio that is considered by many of his RFC superiors as Un-English. There are two loves in Guv’s life: Guv and flying. And that is what Guv is from start to finish, he doesn’t really mend his ways, rather he devolves towards the end of the novel. He is always looking out for number one and always looking for his next excuse to fly.
Barnard has obviously done his research on aviation. His pilots talk the talk and walk the walk. He has them use technical terms without flinching and also has them talking in pilot slang that feels authentic. He captures their love of flying and the feeling of freedom it permits them clearly and you can almost taste the excitement and danger of those early days of flight and aviation. Similarly, his research on both wars must have been extensive as well, as his descriptions of not just the political manoeuvrings, but also of combat are some of the strongest in the book. I thought the inclusion of Walter Mosley and the fact that there were definite fascist sympathisers in Great Britain, something which I knew about, but which I’ve never seen used as a facet in a novel, was very interesting.
The book is billed as ‘an epic novel of family, class and warfare,’ however, this doesn’t mean you should expect a sort of upstairs/downstairs narrative, because it’s not. Instead class comes into the picture in different ways. It’s shown in the divide between both generations Sutro and Kemp, it’s shown in Guv’s inability to shed his father’s humble beginnings, in his mercenary acquisition of funds and status by marrying ‘up’, and in the great divide between officers – who are mostly from genteel families – and the regular troops and NCO’s, who are working and middle class. It’s a subtle social commentary, with those who try to get ahead honestly, like Stan, and those who get ahead by any means, such as Paget, both still having to knuckle their forelocks to the man.
The narrative is well-researched and well-written. The dialogue and manner of speech used by the characters was convincing and felt true to the era. The plot was very good, with a twist at the ending that left me both surprised and a little ambivalent, as I wasn’t sure it added anything to the narrative as it stood. Otherwise, the story’s construction was outstanding, structured in a way that uncovered more of the truth with each section. Some of the revelations were surprising, others were somewhat predictable, but they were compelling in either case.
A Time for Heroes was hard to get into for me, but once the plot grabbed me, I was hooked. It’s a compelling story, set in a fascinating period. If you are at all interested in aviation, the Great War, the Second World War, or just a gripping family story, A Time for Heroes is a great book to pick up.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.