Synopsis (from Amazon)
Christopher Wood, a beautiful young Englishman, decided to be the greatest painter the world had seen. He went to Paris in 1921. By day he studied, by night he attended the parties of the beau monde. He knew Picasso, worked for Diaghilev and was a friend of Cocteau. In the last months of his 29-year life, he fought a ravening opium addiction to succeed in claiming a place in history of English painting.
Richard Hilary, confident, handsome and unprincipled, flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain before being shot down and horribly burned. He underwent several operations by the legendary plastic surgeon, A H McIndoe. His account of his experiences, “The Last Enemy”, made him famous, but not happy. He begged to be allowed to return to flying, and died mysteriously in a night training operation, aged 23.
Jeremy Wolfenden was born in 1936, the son of Jack, later Lord Wolfenden. Charming, generous and witty, he was the cleverest Englishman of his generation, but left All Souls to become a hack reporter. At the height of the Cold War, he was sent to Moscow where his louche private life made him the plaything of the intelligence services. A terrifying sequence of events ended in Washington where he died at the age of 31.
I’m going to split this review into 4 sections, one general section and one for each story or ‘life’. It just makes it a bit easier to organise my thoughts.
Again this is a book which Waterstones put in the wrong section of their store, which kind of disappointed. Maybe they did it purposefully because Sebastian Faulks is better known for his fiction (his most famous novel being Birdsong) but this book is in fact a sort of biography (I say sort of because there are really 3 biographies). This meant I bought it expecting Faulks’ normal style, and this is where I found the book a bit of a let down. I usually really enjoy Faulks’ books, and Birdsong is amongst my favourites, so I had pretty high hopes for this one. While I found the stories themselves quite interesting I found the style was not up to Faulks’ usual standards. At times is read like a list which had just been joined together with a few conjunctions and a bit of punctuation. I think this was partly because, being a biography, there was little on how the ‘characters’ (I say for want of a better word) felt, understandable but I found it jarred with the story-like style of the writing.
After a while my problems with the writing style did become less important as I got more interested in the stories.
The only thing which wasn’t reduced by my interest in the stories was that there was a sense that Faulks’ wanted to use all th information he had read while researching for the book, this meant that in parts there did just seem to be lists of information which wasn’t really needed and actually extended each section beyond the point where you would have expected it to finish.
Of all the accounts this was the one which interested me the least. While Wood’s life was more interesting than the majority of the population I didn’t really become interested until the section was almost finished, in fact I almost gave up within the first 50 pages, all that really kept me going was wanting to know how he died (although I did get interested before that point)! Really the only thing it did was made me intrigued to see some of his art work. I have posted one of his more famous pieces above.
Factually this was my favourite section. I’ve always been pretty interested in history (at one point I was planning on taking a history degree) and particularly the period around the two world wars. However I’ve never really known that much about the RAFs role in the second world war (in fact I think my only knowledge comes from a story I read as a teenager which was more focused on the work on the ground than in the air) so I found it really interesting to find out about what it was like to be a pilot and getting into the RAF. I also found the information about early plastic surgery really interesting. This was also the section I found easiest to read, because one of the sources was Hilary’s own book (which was more or less an autobiography) Faulks was able to include more information about how Hilary felt than he had been able to for the other two sections.
Character wise this was my favourite section. Wolfenden seemed to spend most of his life trying to be controversial, and various events made things all the more crazy. It seemed there was always stuff going on in his life. This section also partially took place in Moscow during the Cold War so I found it historically interesting too although it had less historical content (in terms of world history rather than personal history) than the section on Richard Hilary.