Book review: The Balloonist by James Long

The Balloonist by James Long
The Balloonist by James Long

If you thought that the First World War pilots who flew their flimsy planes over the Western Front had the most dangerous aerial job, James Long’s gripping novel will give cause for new reflection.

Four thousand feet above the battle lines were the balloon observers, the army’s ‘eyes in the sky’ … their job was to map the terrain and make sure the artillery hit their targets.

But the balloons were a bobbing, bulbous target for enemy guns and the only lifting gas available was hydrogen, a gas that burns fiercely when hit by exploding bullets or shells.

Unsurprisingly, few of the ‘balloonists’ survived to tell the tale of their extraordinary work and thus Long’s absorbing and well-researched story acts a tribute to the unsung heroes whose lives ended ‘in a greasy smear of smoke down a hostile sky.’

The Balloonist is a fast-paced wartime thriller about a young man escaping his privileged but unhappy childhood in a crumbling Scottish castle and heading across the Channel for new horizons, only to find that Europe is on the brink of war.

His journey through four years of hostilities is also one of personal discoveries about himself, the people he meets along the way and the true meaning of friendship, loyalty… and love.

In June 1914, Willy Fraser is the new owner of Grannoch Castle in Galloway but, after resigning his commission with a local cavalry regiment, he has no intentions of hanging around in Scotland.

Instead, the boy who grew up ‘dancing with danger’ and now a man who shies away from nothing, is travelling to Berlin to see for himself the German unrest caused by the recent assassination of an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo.

In Berlin, he befriends American news correspondent Chester K.Hoffman but within weeks the two men are caught up in the violence and suspicions of a country preparing for war and when Willy volunteers as an officer in the Belgian Army, he meets another hostage of war, Lieutenant Claude Tavernier, newly married and now heading for the Front.

As the conflict drags on, the three men’s lives become intertwined until Willy is delegated the lethal job of balloon observer above the Ypres Salient, anchored only by a slender cable. And it is while he is spotting for artillery and under attack that Willy is forced to make an impossible decision which threatens the life of a woman he has come to love…

Packed with intriguing detail about war on the Western Front and the perilous work of the balloon observers, The Balloonist is both a suspenseful action story and a moving account of those who fought, endured and died.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)