The Wild Air begins in 1909 with the arrival in Cleethorpes of fourteen-year-old Cordelia ‘Della’ Dobbs’ great Auntie Betty, after 20 years spent in America. Della is plain, silent and shy, but discovers a kindred spirit in her Auntie Betty who has an interest in engineering and manned flight in particular, having seen the Wright brothers fly. She opens up a world of possibilities for Della. They fly kites of their own design on the beach and nurture plans of making a flying machine of their own. On one of their kite flying outings, they meet Dudley Willow, a solitary boy on holidays at Cleethorpes with a similar interest in flight. When Dudley leaves, he and Della keep in touch by correspondence and develop a long-lasting friendship. Betty encourages Della’s love of flying and despite her father’s disapproval, Betty pays for Della’s first flying lessons. With the moral support of Dudley, the more practical support of Auntie Betty and driven by her love of flying and the inspiring example of other aviatrices, Della overcomes the obstacles put in her way by society and male aviators and instructors who believe that the air is no place for a woman. Della becomes a well known aviatrix on the flying circuit in both England and Europe, winning competitions and making a name for herself. But the Great War is looming and no one will remain untouched by it, Della and those closest to her least of all.
All the characters in Wild Air are well drawn and thoroughly believable. The book is meticulously researched and the experience of flight in those flimsy machines and the dangers faced by the early aviators are vividly recreated as are, in the latter part of the novel, the horrors of the First World War and its effects on all those caught up in it. Mascull’s prose is beautiful and lyrical, a delight to read, capturing at times the essence of the rushing air in its flow.
The novel itself is absolutely gripping. I would absolutely recommend it but with a proviso – Do not read the book on public transport. I did and I nearly missed a train I was so absorbed; several times I did miss my stop. Also I found, on occasions, I had to stop reading and blink hard to force back tears, the emotions evoked were so strong. (Not the done thing on the train.)
A more detailed review can be found here.