Sunday, 26 June 2016

Review/Reflection: Skybound by Aleksandr Voinov

Skybound by Aleksandr Voinov had its merits. It's a very short novella (only 44 pages), so the plot was a bit rushed, but the characterisation was solid and the relationship arc was reasonable. It's very lyrically written. However, I also have some reservations about Skybound, if my thoughts are concrete enough to be called that. Maybe a better way of phrasing it is that there are some things that sit uneasily together for me, and which people definitely need to consider when thinking if this book is right for them. 

This is largely because it's set in the last days of World War Two, and is the romance of a German Luftwaffe pilot, Baldur Vogt, and Felix, a mechanic who works on the planes. Felix has admired and loved the flying ace from afar, but after he pulls Vogt from the flaming wreck of his plane, the two develop a friendship with undercurrents of something more. Vogt and Felix escape the airfield for a weekend, only to return to to the realities of the Russian advance on Berlin. 

As much as the central romance itself was well constructed, I think I would have felt a lot easier about the characters and their setting if they had shown more emotional angst. There was some, but it was brief and low-key and I didn't feel it was in proportion with the fact that Felix and Baldur are two gay men (and, later, a gay couple) in Nazi Germany. While they had some concerns about being outed, these were less in, say, The Imitation Game, set in Britain during the same period. Even if the mechanisms of the state had broken down at this point and people were no longer being prosecuted for homosexuality, I feel like 10+ years of living in a toxic, openly homophobic environment would have had an effect on the characters, both in terms of paranoia about being outed and their own acceptance of their sexuality. There is brief mention of the latter with regards to Felix, but by and large, I didn't see this, and I feel a bit uncomfortable about that, like it's an erasure of the Nazi regime's genocidal homophobia. 

The lack of more than low-level fear or angst extends to more aspects of the book as well, particularly the Russians closing in. While this drives the plot in the final scenes of the book, it is very underdeveloped until then, appearing like a bolt out the blue. 

I respect that it's a novella, so it can't include masses of content or suspense-building, but I felt both these areas were pretty essential if you are going to have an M/M romance set in Nazi Germany that uses fear of the Red Army's brutality to move your plot along. 

Voinov puts a lot of effort into painting a picture of the airfield, with details of the Luftwaffe and planes, but there is none of the same effort put into recreating other parts of the society. On some level, I think this was a conscious decision, part of efforts to portray Felix, Baldur and their ilk as citizens and soldiers of Germany and distinguish them from the Nazi establishment. But part of what did make me uncomfortable with the story is that the airfield is presented as a bubble, with little external input or output, even from other military establishments. But focusing on the technical aspects of the planes and not mentioning where Baldur's orders were coming from doesn't change the realities of the situation. 

And this is where my mind gets stuck, because an idealistic part of me wants to believe multiple experiences of the war can exist side-by-side without impinging on each other, but another part also recognises that in order to focus on a story like Felix and Baldur's, a thousand others are pushed out of the frame. Reading Elie Wiesel's Night after I read Skybound, but before I wrote this review, I was reminded that, at the same time that Baldur and Felix took that weekend away with ample food and warmth and petrol, the survivors of concentration camps were being forced to make death marches through snow-covered Poland and Germany ahead of the liberating forces. 

These are all just jumbled thoughts, and I'm not the person to give them any weight or validity, if they're to have any at all. But I do think that maybe 44 pages are insufficient to tackle all the context that needs to be addressed in a romance with a Third Reich setting. I think that would be the case with a heterosexual romance, but it's doubly so with a gay romance.

In the end, I haven't rated Skybound, because I don't feel like my thoughts are enough of a cohesive critique to rate it negatively, but I would also feel uncomfortable giving it a rating that was divorced from them. 

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