The Fall of the Sparrow

Now that one is undertaking Honours, one finds much of one’s time taken up with essays, work, research, and all those myriad obligations and undertakings inherent in life. Nevertheless, between games of Titanfall 2, writing an essay for public international law, and reading more about the privilege against self-incrimination, I have finally sat down and read a novel, and not just a few poems and short stories squeezed in whenever I could. The novel in question is The Fall of the Sparrow by Nigel Balchin. I had not heard of the novel nor the author, but found it tucked away in a shelf at my uni’s library, and thought the title was good enough that the book itself may turn out to be a Worthwhile Read. My initial assumptions were correct.

The book, written in the 50s, is essentially the story of the main character, Jason Pellew, and his collapse — his fall, I suppose. It is told by a narrator, a friend of the protagonist since childhood, sandwiched in between a a sentencing hearing and the judge’s summing up and sentence. In between, one is given the childhood, schooldays, days at Cambridge, and the whole mess of life during the Second World War. The title itself is a reference to St Matthew’s Gospel, with which the book begins:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.”

Though not stated, I also imagine it is a reference to Hamlet: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

(Jason Pellew is awarded a Military Cross, so thought this made an appropriate picture.)

The book is decently written, generally not the greatest piece of prose one will ever find, but good enough, and enjoyable. There are moments which shine, and Nigel Balchin is wonderful with some spurts of solid understatement. For example, the heartbreaking moment when one of the narrator’s friends is killed in the D-Day landings. The narrator receives a letter from him, and then says:

“Since then there has been silence from [name omitted should the reader read the novel]. For, on June 6th, 1944, the pot we had all been heating for so many months finally boiled over in the Normandy landings, and thereafter there were no more of those excruciatingly wiggins letters. But though I never heard from him again, I heard of him once. I quote the official citation.

Then follows the notification of the friend’s death. So quietly and easily done, but the sheer simplicity of the sorrowful moment makes this passage a truly heart-rending one.

There are more like that, but also happier scenes. There’s a great one when the main characters are in London during the blitz, and all happen to be sitting in the living room away from windows, should a bomb shatter the glass, and making cocktails to ignore the bombing, while talking idly and amusingly about the various anti-aircraft gunners. The scene builds up the tension, but also the humanity, and is quite artfully done, really.

Jason Pellew himself is a rather tragic figure, it must be said. He’s a bit of a fantasist, and ends poorly, but one has sympathy for him. A man of sorrowful background, a bit of a war hero, and then the end. When the book was published, it was criticised as having an unsympathetic main character, but I for one feel heartily for him. I do feel, in part too, the book really is an ode to those who came out of the war, and had little else. As Jason himself says, he has a degree in languages, and since then all he has learnt is becoming a neurotic parachutist. One does feel awfully for him, and all the rest. I did read a bit of a review, which had an interesting comment on the novel, in the tension between the judgement of friendship and the judgement of the law. As one of the characters says, Jason’s ultimate sentence is “fair enough,” but brings into question “whether the lights of the law are too dim to illumine the predicament of an individual like Jason.” It is interesting portrayal, in that Jason had all what would be considered a good background and service, but was not all it was supposed to be, for poor Jason. An interesting point to ponder, though I feel a criticism in some respects sharply showing a need for reform in 50s Britain.

Like many of the books about which I write on the ol’ blog, I will admit that this is no masterpiece. However, the prose is decent, and there are moments of utter heartbreak interspersed with fun and humour, in order to make a rather gripping novel. It is a rather enjoyable book, and I would recommend anyone looking for something different to give it a crack.

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