First Time Solo

Written by Iain Maloney
Review by B. J. Sedlock

Maloney drew on his grandfather’s experiences to create this story of a young man’s journey to become an RAF pilot in 1943. Jack Devine is an enthusiastic fan of jazz. When he leaves Inverayne for London, he takes his trumpet along. He meets fellow recruit Joe Robertson on the train, an avowed Communist who’s fond of pub fights, and a drummer. Jack is leery of Joe’s tendency for trouble, but circumstances throw them together during their training. They form a jazz group with Welshman Terry. But the war looms close when they witness fellow trainee pilots being strafed, and children killed when a church is bombed.  When he at last is allowed to sit in the cockpit of a plane, Jack is elated by the freedom of flight. But when Joe’s class hatred for another pilot may be the cause of a tragic incident, Jack must choose whether to be loyal to his mate, or report him.

The story touches on the social changes the war brought about in Britain. Jack is exposed to bebop, a new form of jazz introduced by African-American soldiers. Joe relishes class conflict, women are working in nontraditional roles, and now that he’s escaped, Jack doesn’t want to return to the farm after the war is over. The depiction of military life rings true: waste and boredom, with short bursts of violence. A reader picking up a coming-of-age war story may expect some romance, but Maloney leaves that offstage. I didn’t think the author’s style always worked: “More flights. Terry went solo. Guard duty. Waiting,” yet I still found the book hard to put down.  While I was a bit disappointed about the way Maloney ended the story, he left me wanting more, always a good thing in a novel.