Darkness Falls from the Air (1942)

Synopsis: Set in an unnamed government ministry in the early days of World War Two, Darkness Falls from the Air describes the difficulties experienced by Bill Sarratt, a temporary civil servant seconded from industry, whilst he endeavours to get on with the job of winning the war, impeded as he is by boneheaded superiors more intent on watching their own backs than launching new initiatives. Sarratt’s wife, Marcia, is also having an affair with a suicidal poet called Stephen which seems to be taking longer to fizzle out than Sarratt would like.

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Context: Balchin’s work at the Ministry of Food between 1940 and 1941 clearly had a strong influence on the content of this book. The depiction of the relationship between Stephen and Marcia is believed to have been a reaction to Balchin’s wife, Elisabeth, having a wartime fling with the composer Christian Darnton.

Verdict: Darkness Falls from the Air paints a vivid picture of what it was like to be living and working in London during the Blitz. This is undoubtedly Balchin’s wittiest novel: the scenes set in Whitehall crackle with bitter humour and the author’s attack on wartime bureaucracy is clear and astringent. The romantic subplot is a little tiresome at times but the book is redeemed by its dramatic, heart-breaking ending.

Praise for Darkness Falls from the Air:

“One of the most remarkable novels I have struck this season” — Elizabeth Bowen, Tatler

“What a corking modern commentary” — Margery Allingham, Time and Tide

Rating: 9/10

Availability: Darkness Falls from the Air was reissued by Orion Books as a ‘W&N Modern Classic’ in September 2015.