Kennedy is particularly good at the crew’s teasing banter, which feels authentic and alive, and at the distinctive grain of Alfred’s mental voice. When he is angry or stressed—when, for instance, his plane is shot down—he reverts to his childhood dialect, “a mumbled chain of Black Country noises” in which “yo day” means “you didn’t.” (This makes the novel’s title, depending on Alfred’s mood, alternately a surname or a statement of negation.) But while Alfred, whose brain you share, usually feels complex and satisfyingly human, Day’s minor characters tend to be generic stand-ins—loving mother, loutish father, capering comrades, idealized lover. Far too often they launch, with no prompting whatsoever, into tearfully eloquent Meaningful Speeches. (A conscience-stricken Good German, having apparently just left a seminar on Buddhist rhetoric, tells Alfred, “I allowed them to make me what allowed them to make me.”) And the novel’s vision of love seems to have been borrowed from a romantic comedy; laid end to end, its proclamations would make an excellent Rod Stewart song: “She is the first good hurt he’s known.” / “Your broken heart, it’s still not right.” / “The man you might become, she’d known all that: she’d understood the way you’d be complete.” / “She was a place to live. My place to live.”
For such an introverted, style-heavy novel, Day manages to build a plot with surprising momentum. As it cuts back and forth between Alfred’s real-world war experience and his simulations of that experience on the film set, the two narratives start to gallop suspensefully in tandem. Unfortunately, Kennedy squanders the book’s most promising source of potential drama. Alfred’s most consistent antagonist at the film camp is Vasyl, a displaced Ukrainian soldier whose voice “made you feel some part of him had died.” Vasyl begins the book as a menacing wild card with a knife in his pocket, pissing on a patch of grass he insists is Himmler’s secret grave. By the end, however, the threat has entirely fizzled: He’s become a toothless, implausibly talky symbol of the degradation of postwar Britain. He seems, paradoxically, to be both the repository of all the novel’s evil violence (“I understand people—they hold blood,” he tells Alfred) but also completely and inexplicably harmless.
The reader of any novel keeps an internal balance sheet. With Day, it’s a close tally between the freshness of its voice and the familiarity of its content, the depth of its hero and the slightness of his foils and friends. Despite its handful of obvious deficiencies, the novel works because—having forcibly seized control of your subjectivity—Kennedy does an impressive job with it. The view from the cramped turret of your and Alfred’s twinned consciousness is vigorous, intense, admirably sustained, and occasionally spectacular. Your life, though cut—as your actual life probably is—from a very familiar pattern, matters. You are subtle and convincing. And that, in the end, is all you can really ask for.