Nigel Balchin The Small Back Room (1943)
I found this book as the author sits next to Beryl Bainbridge on the library shelves (and I'm thinking about Beryl Bainbridge Week). Also, the name rang a faint bell. A quick search of google reader (far more reliable than my memory) revealed that I'd flagged it to track down after reading the excellent review on futile preoccupations and that Balchin had been discussed (so recently that I should be ashamed of forgetting) by beauty is a sleeping cat and a work in progress.
The Small Back Room is a shortish and very intense book, set during the Second World War. The protagonist is a 'backroom boy' - a scientist working in a small team which basically throws up ideas and sees if they'll work: new types of silent guns, odd fuses, ways to stop things freezing, and so on. The novel offers a deeply depressing look at how individual egos can dominate to the detriment of the big picture - the actual war and, more specifically, the men on the front who will have to use these new inventions.
The separation in distance and mind-set between the back room boys and their masters and the men on the front is beautifully brought out when the protagonist - prevented from active service by the loss of a foot in the First World War - has to become actively involved in defusing a deadly new type of bomb. I liked the uneasy atmosphere evoked by this book: the impression that the war was intended to feather certain men's nests; the arguments between the 'old boy' scientists who want to maintain their little fiefdoms without regard to efficiency or making a difference to the war; the go-betweens in cushy safe jobs which they intend to keep.
"But I don't think you understand," I said rather desperately. "That stuff matters. His own people know that it's good and say it's never been tackled before. There's stuff there that I was working on before the war. What's going to happen to it?"Waring said, "That's entirely up to Hereward. After what's happened, you can't expect him to be very enthusiastic, can you?"I felt myself shaking a bit. I said, "It isn't a question of whether Hereward is enthusiastic or not. That idea might make all the difference to operating transport and guns in cold climates. Why should it be stopped because of his bloody dignity? The war isn't his private show."...Mair said gently, "You're being logical, Sammy, and I'm afraid it isn't a matter of logic."
This is not a book about heroes (apart from one very brave and determined bomb disposal expert). The protagonist is not particularly likeable and spends a goodly amount of time feeling sorry for himself and making the life of his lover hellish. This doesn't sound promising, but nevertheless, Balchin's grim (and grimy) assessment of human nature at play on the home front offers much revisional food for thought. Incidentally, Balchin's wikipedia entry offers some interesting parallels between his life and his writing.
Rating: 8/10; disheartening but great writing. It's been made into a film that sounds rather more redemptive than the book.