The Rescue Man, by Anthony Quinn

>> Sunday, May 19, 2013

TITLE: The Rescue Man
AUTHOR: Anthony Quinn

PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Vintage Books

SETTING: 1860s and 1940s Liverpool
TYPE: Fiction

Rescue Man opens on the eve of the Second World War. With uncertainty in the air as the world seems on the brink of disaster, Liverpool is a city tense in anticipation of the coming conflict. Orphaned as a child and now approaching forty with no prospect of a family of his own, Tom Baines is a man emotionally adrift. Unable to commit to anything, either personal or professional, he is left looking in at life from the outside, with only his fascination for architecture to connect him.

The outbreak of war brings a new sense of purpose and unexpected relationships. Baines joins the Rescue Men, retrieving the wounded and dying from bombed buildings. Yet in wartime, ordinary rules are suspended, risks taken and Baines finds himself caught up in a love affair that is as heady and all-consuming as it is transgressive.

With writing that is both immediate and deeply steeped in its time, Anthony Quinn recreates wartime Liverpool with emotional intensity in this powerful story of love found and lost.
I picked this one up purely because I loved the idea of reading a book set in my city, on the streets I walk on every day. I wasn't particularly drawn to the storyline, as described in the blurb, but that turned out to be good as well.

The book opens in 1939, with Liverpool preparing itself for war. Tom Baines, an architectural historian, has been dithering over a commission from a publisher to make a record of the city's's architecture. The knowledge that the German bombers will be coming soon spurs him into activity, and rather than continue with his time-consuming drawings, he approaches a photographer. Well, two photographers, because the man he recruits to help him is married to a woman who's just as good with a camera, and they all become friends.

As the months go by, we follow Baines' and the city's fortunes. There's tragedy and destruction and forbidden romance. There's also history, because Baines is researching Peter Eames, an architect who was active in the 1860s and whose legacy Baines admires. Through his diaries, we get a glimpse of the city then, and of what the life of a young professional then might have been like.

A lot of my pleasure in reading this came from the author's clear love for Liverpool, and the fact that I share it. Even though the city's changed a lot since the 1940s (not to mention, the 1860s!), it's still recognisable, and it was wonderful to read the vivid descriptions and not just be able to picture the places in my head, but to be able to overlay them with what they look like now. Quinn not only brings alive the way the city would have looked, it feels distinctly like Liverpool still does today. I loved that element of it.

The Peter Eames sections were fascinating, even if sometimes it felt like Quinn was determined to shoehorn in every interesting bit of history he'd found, like when they all go to St. George's Hall to hear a lecture by Charles Dickens. It was a fun episode to read about, but didn't really have much bearing on the story. However, much as I liked these sections, I much, much prefered those set during the 2nd world war. Tom, due to his knowledge of architecture, becomes a 'rescue man', one of those tasked with going into collapsed buildings to rescue anyone still alive inside (the reasoning being, quite sensibly, that this sort of knowledge might help rescuers make judgements about things like just how likely it was that a particular building would collapse further). He is, therefore, not spending his nights in a bomb shelter but out and about, rushing towards the bombs.

When it comes to the Blitz, it seems people only talk about London, and completely forget that other cities, including Liverpool got hammered as well. The area where I work, for instance, is by the docks and was one of the most heavily bombed in the country. But even knowing about what happened at the time, it can be hard to really get that within living memory, this horror happened. The Rescue Man succeeded in making me feel at least a small portion of just how terrifying and horrendous it must have been.

I also found it quite fascinating to see the effect of the war and the bombings on people's behaviour. Tom is initially a serious, relatively conventional young man, but after the war starts, his attitudes gradually change. So do his relationships, including that with his photographer friends, and this forms the basis of the main story. It was a story I enjoyed well enough, but I have to say, set in a different city, it wouldn't have been nearly as successful.



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