When the Prime Minister announces that Britain is at war with Germany, Queenie can barely hear the radio over Bernard’s grandfather clock. Right away, an air-raid siren sounds. Panicking, Bernard gathers their gas masks and runs to the back door, while Arthur trembles mutely. Mr. Plant, a German-Jewish refugee who rents a room, runs down the stairs screaming in German.
The novel presents the declaration of war, a huge political event, among the routine and frustrations of ordinary life. The war will completely warp Queenie’s daily life, but its disruptions will also become routine to her.
All four are climbing in to the bomb shelter, which Arthur has constructed over the past weeks in the backyard, when the all-clear sounds. The air raid is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to Queenie, and she decides she’s looking forward to war.
Queenie’s misplaced excitement demonstrates her profound unhappiness as a housewife. While she’ll realize the war is not easy, it will force her to gain more independence, thus strengthening her character.
Soon after, government officials come to the house asking Queenie about Mr. Plant. Even though she tells him he rarely leaves his room and never sees anyone, they take him away for internment. Queenie is bothered that the police won’t explain anything to her, but Bernard just says that “Jews are more trouble than they’re worth.”
Like Mr. Todd, Bernard is hostile to anyone outside his own ethnic group. His comments are especially ironic given that the Jews and the English share a common enemy, the Third Reich.
When the Blitz begins, Queenie forgets her excitement and realizes how frightening the bombs really are. Arthur refuses to enter the shelter, since it reminds him of his time in the trenches during the Great War. Every night while Queenie and Bernard huddle underground, they hope that the bombs spare Arthur inside the house.
Arthur’s insanity is a reminder of the ravages war can inflict. Even as Queenie and Bernard stoically continue their daily lives, they’re aware that the war has the potential to destroy their sanity.
Families from bombed-out houses have to resettle in other neighborhoods, and a Cockney family comes to live next to the Blighs in Earls Court. Bernard and Cyril Todd are upset that people of a lower class are invading their neighborhood, muttering that “they’d be happier among their own kind.” Queenie is struck by the sad spectacle of a family struggling down the street in torn clothes, carrying the few possessions they’ve scavenged from the bombing. The government has forced Mrs. Newman to rent them a space in her house, but she consigns them to the attic and refuses to let them use her bathrooms.
Queenie’s response here shows how much she’s developed since childhood. While she was mean to the miners’ children at her school and prevented her brother from sharing food, now her instinctive empathy contrasts with her neighbors’ petty hostility. Queenie’s behavior is a hopeful reminder that characters can grow and change over time (although few of the novel’s characters will actually do so). It also foreshadows her later willingness to rent to Jamaican tenants.
Queenie and Bernard become exhausted from spending nearly every night in their shelter, listening to bombs. Once, when a bomb lands particularly close, Bernard has a panic attack; but when Queenie attempts to open the shelter to look outside and reassure him, he tackles her to keep her from endangering herself. The house and Arthur survive intact, and afterward Bernard tells her that he loves her.
Bernard’s behavior is a reminder that, despite his stony exterior, he does truly care for Queenie and his father. Still, moments like these don’t balance out the rampant prejudice that prevents him from helping even fellow citizens, if they’re from a lower class than he is.
The Blighs leave their shelter to find that Mrs. Newman’s house has been completely destroyed, although all the inhabitants have survived. The Cockney mother curses in despair, and Mr. Todd smugly scolds her for her language.
Mr. Todd’s carping about manners in the middle of a crisis shows how ridiculous, and even harmful, an obsession with the norms of “civilization” can be.
Without asking Bernard, Queenie offers to shelter the Cockney family, now displaced twice, in her own home. Bernard is furious and refuses to let them stay for more than a day, after which Queenie takes them to a rest center, or shelter for bombing victims. Once she’s there, Queenie volunteers to help, and comes home to tell Bernard triumphantly that she has a job of which he won’t approve.
Queenie’s sympathy toward the Cockney family marks a turning point for her. Not only does she put her feelings of empathy into action, she develops a personal independence that contrasts with her previous submission to her husband.