Iain Maloney – First Time Solo
(Freight Books, 224pp., £8.99. Book review by Chris Parker)
Debut novelist Iain Maloney refers to this story of a group of RAF recruits training for participation in the Second World War as ‘a tiny pebble added to the memorial cairn for a truly special generation’. Intelligently assembled from first-hand accounts given him by his grandparents and published histories edited by Hugh Morgan and Godfrey Smith, leavened with a fair amount of imaginative plot construction and characterisation, First Time Solo also contains a good deal of jazz-related material: the formation of a band, scenes set in wartime London jazz clubs, ENSA concerts, the dawn of bebop etc.
The novel’s central character, Scottish farmer Jack Devine, is a Louis Armstrong-obsessed trumpeter, and his bandmates are a hardline Communist, a Welsh black marketeer and a Yorkshire poet. The plot follows the progress of this disparate (and quarrelsome) quartet through training, initially in London, but subsequently in Babbacombe and Wiltshire, charting not only their transformation into pilots but also their internecine conflicts, which inevitably result in tragedy and violence. Both worlds, the military and musical, are vividly portrayed, and the resultant novel thus throws welcome light on both a neglected aspect of Second World War history (the transformation of raw civilians into fighting men) and the beginnings of the bebop movement in UK jazz. Its characters are deftly and compassionately drawn and are convincing enough to carry, credibly and entertainingly, a tight plot that compels attention throughout. In short, First Time Solo is an engrossing, consistently readable debut from a skilful and sensitive writer.